The Campaign Whisperers

Hints of Oregon's political future in 2014 can be seen in the contributions of 2013.

It's 2014, an election year that will bring before voters an astonishingly broad list of ballot measures, a race for the U.S. Senate and an Oregon governor seeking an unprecedented fourth term.

But clues to the key turning points in this year's races may already be out there in the reports of cash contributed to political races before the close of 2013.

We've highlighted five key political contributions below—not necessarily because they were the biggest checks written in 2013, but because they may showcase the direction political power is already moving.

1. The contribution: $50,000 from the Drug Policy Alliance of New York City to New Approach Oregon, a marijuana legalization group, on Sept. 23. 

Why it matters: An underfunded, haphazard marijuana legalization measure garnered nearly 47 percent of the vote in 2012. This time, the national funders—notably, hedge-fund billionaire George Soros—who helped the Drug Policy Alliance pass legalization in Colorado and Washington, have come to Oregon in a big way for 2014. 

The close 2012 finish in Oregon coupled with the kind of money Soros can unleash could swing the question this year.

"This is an issue that cuts across demographic groups," says Portland pollster Adam Davis. “I think we’re likely to see a lot more support this time.” 

2. The contribution: $100,000 from the Northwest Grocery Association on Dec. 18 to five political action committees called Oregonians for Competition that seek to privatize the sale of liquor in Oregon. 

Why it matters: Since the end of Prohibition in 1933, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission has tightly regulated booze sales in this state. After busting a similar state monopoly in Washington in 2011, the grocers are itching for a fight here—or a legislative compromise. 

Privatization has not led to lower prices in Washington ("Price Check on Fireball," WW, Dec. 25, 2013), but Reed College political science professor Paul Gronke says voters' distrust of government works in the grocers' favor. 

“State-controlled liquor has gone the way of the dodo,” Gronke says. “We’re behind the times.”  

3. The contribution: On Nov. 15, Nike contributed $280,000 to the Nike Equality Political Action Committee, which the sportswear company established to support a 2014 same-sex marriage initiative. 

Why it matters: In 2004, when Oregon voters overwhelmingly passed Measure 36, a constitutional ban on gay marriage by 57 to 43 percent, large corporations such as Nike sat out the election. 

Avoiding controversy is a top priority for companies that depend on retail sales. But Columbia Sportswear and Adidas beat Nike to the punch last year by backing a measure to end Oregon's same-sex marriage ban. 

The creation of Nike's PAC shows just how far public opinion has shifted—and the company's spending gives corporate Oregon plenty of cover. 

"Publicly traded corporations have almost never weighed in on social issues," says Phil Keisling, director of the Center for Public Service at Portland State University. "It's been a Rubicon that has largely been uncrossed and may have ramifications beyond this election."

 4. The contribution: On Dec. 12, Roseburg Forest Products gave $25,000 to Gov. John Kitzhaber to help him win an unprecedented (in Oregon) fourth gubernatorial term.

Why it matters: Most timber companies back Republicans. But Roseburg was one of six timber companies to ante up when Kitzhaber announced his re-election plans. 

Those contributions may reflect the timber industry's satisfaction with what they see as Kitzhaber's moderate forestry policy. Their giving also signals to announced GOP candidate Dennis Richardson, state representative from Central Point, that the timber companies think the Democratic governor cannot lose. 

"It sends a pretty serious message," says Pacific University political science professor Jim Moore. "They see Kitzhaber as a really good bet."

5. The contribution: On Dec. 30, the Umatilla Electric Cooperative gave another $6,000 to the Affordable Renewable Energy Political Action Committee, bringing its total to $25,000 for the year.

Why it matters: Left-leaning Portlanders may think they set the state's environmental policy, but Umatilla Electric, a tiny rural power co-op, wants to swing a huge bat against the state's landmark 2007 renewable energy law. That law requires the utilities to generate 25 percent of their power from new renewable sources by 2025. Umatilla and its allies want existing dams to count toward that percentage, which would make the standard essentially meaningless.

“It may be a pocketbook issue,” Keisling says. “Do voters want to save money or be environmental leaders?” 

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