For much of the past decade, Oregon House Democrats have out-raised their Republican rivals by a 2-to-1 margin. This edge in cash helped Democrats retake the House in 2006 after a decade and a half in the minority.
But this year, the advantage has flipped.
Through the first week of November, Promote Oregon, the House GOP campaign, has raised about $354,000—twice as much as Democrats.
The implications of this reversal are clear: House Democrats’ 34-26 hold slipped away last year. They spent $2.3 million only to lose six seats and end in a 30-30 split with the GOP.
Any lost ground in raising money means Democrats face an even tougher battle to win back control of the House.
“There’s no one out there who’s pushing the Democratic brand in this state,” says former state Rep. Nick Kahl (D-Portland). “That’s splashing on the House Democrats.”
Melissa Unger, who in August took over as executive director of Future PAC, the House Democrats’ campaign, says bringing in big checks is tough. “Fundraising is different when the House is 30-30,” she says.
Nick Smith, a spokesman for the House Republican caucus, says the shift in fundraising is noticeable. He cautions that it’s still early in the 2012 cycle—the election is a year away.
“Gaining six seats shows we know how to win races,” Smith adds. “People are more pleased with a more balanced and more business-friendly legislature.”
Across the Capitol, Senate D’s, with a 16-14 majority, are well ahead of the GOP in fundraising.
But the House races are the most volatile—every one of the 60 seats is up—making races much more vulnerable to both voters’ moods and the amounts poured into campaigns.
Control of the House is particularly important; new tax measures must originate there. Without control, Democrats’ desire to raise more money for schools or social services is fantasy.
Democrats have a statewide edge of 200,000 registered voters, but House D’s appear to be squandering their numerical advantage in a fashion only Red Sox fans could appreciate.
Why has the Democrats’ cash flow dried up? Some donors have less money to spend. Others are still angry at Democrats for Measures 66 and 67, the income-tax increase voters approved in 2010 despite heavy opposition from businesses.
House Democrats have also seen an exodus of caucus leaders and would-be leaders. House Speaker Jeff Merkley (D-Portland) and Rep. Greg Macpherson (D-Lake Oswego) left to seek higher office in 2008.
Rep. David Edwards (D-Hillsboro), a rising star, bailed in 2010. Portland Reps. Mary Nolan, Ben Cannon and Jefferson Smith announced plans to leave, as have former Speaker Dave Hunt (D-Gladstone) and current co-Speaker Arnie Roblan (D-Coos Bay).
So far, public employee unions, traditionally sympathetic to Democrats, are keeping their wallets closed until after the 2012 session scheduled for Feb. 1 until March 6. It’s a blackout period during which lawmakers cannot raise money.
“I think a lot of big, institutional folks are waiting until after the session,” says Joe Baessler, statewide political director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the third-largest public employees union.
Arthur Towers, who heads the lobbying team for Service Employees International Union, traditionally one of the top donors to Democrats, says his public-employees union hasn’t given lawmakers any money in 2011. He says it will wait to do so after the 2012 session.
He doesn’t see the low money totals for House D’s so far as a problem.
“My sense,” Towers says, “is that Democratic money usually comes in late.”