There may still be a few campaign finance reports left to file, but it’s already quite clear that this year’s race for the District 8 seat in the Oregon Senate was one of the most expensive legislative battles in state history.
Altogether, candidates Sara Gelser and Betsy Close brought in a combined $1,526,131.36 during the two-year election cycle and spent $1,422,556.02 during the campaign, according to the most recent filings with the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office.
That level of spending far surpasses the combined $1 million spent in the high-profile 2006 House District 49 contest between then-Republican Speaker Karen Minnis and Democratic challenger Rob Brading, which set a record at the time.
But this year’s District 8 race was just one of several Senate showdowns that broke the million-dollar barrier as Republicans and Democrats tussled for control of the upper chamber. In the end, the Democrats picked up two seats to extend their majority from 16-14 to 18-12.
Both parties poured money into key races, with the closest also turning out to be the priciest. Democrat Chuck Riley and Republican Bruce Starr spent just under $1.8 million in their District 15 slugfest, which Riley was winning by a mere 221 votes at last count, with some contested ballots still untallied.
The District 8 race was second at just over $1.4 million, followed by the District 3 battle between Alan Bates and Dave Dotterrer at $1.2 million and the District 11 contest between Peter Courtney and Patti Milne at not quite $982,000, according to campaign finance records on file with the state.
At least two House races also surpassed the million-dollar mark this year, according to Pacific University political science professor Jim Moore, and he thinks future races could get even more expensive.
“I think it’s a trend,” he said. “The reason is, in all of these races, they started going to television advertising, and that’s where it all adds up.”
He also cited what he called the growing professionalization of Oregon legislative campaigns, with candidates hiring more paid staff than in years past.
For a while, the Close-Gelser race was shaping up to be the costliest contest on the ballot, Moore added. But as the election drew to a close, Democrats began funneling lots of cash to Riley, who looked to have a realistic chance to unseat Starr — a bet that paid off with a narrow victory.
In both of those races, Moore said, the Democratic candidates raked in hefty contributions from out-of-state liberals with extremely deep pockets: Tom Steyr, a California hedge fund manager concerned about climate change, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a gun-control advocate.
“We are on the billionaires’ wish list,” Moore said. “And given the results, Oregon is one of the few places where they got their money’s worth.”
In the local race, Democrat Sara Gelser had the bigger war chest. The five-term state representative from Corvallis took in $921,000 this election cycle, compared with $605,000 for her Republican rival Close, a former state representative from North Albany who was appointed to the District 8 post in the Senate in 2012 after incumbent Frank Morse stepped down.
Gelser also benefited from $549,682.93 worth of advertising buys and other “in kind” contributions from outside groups, while Close’s campaign received $391,326.14.
The net result of all that campaign spending was a Democratic win in District 8, with Gelser garnering 27,375 votes to 21,571 for Close.
In purely economic terms, the price of victory for the Gelser campaign was about $30.11 per vote. Close spent only slightly less in a losing cause, at $27.74 per vote.