Outside spending fuels attack ads in Southwest Washington congressional race

By Troy Brynelson (OPB)
Oct. 21, 2020 1:47 p.m.

Campaign donations have poured directly to candidates in the 2020 rematch. Recently, so has money from D.C.

Less than two weeks before Election Day, candidates for southwest Washington’s congressional seat are giving their campaigns a final kick — with some outside help.

More than $1 million in opposition spending has poured in over the last three weeks into the rematch between Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler and her Democratic opponent, political science professor Carolyn Long, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

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That spending has manifested as mailers and attack ads on television and social media, including in parts of the Portland metropolitan area where viewers have no vote on the election.

Herrera Beutler and Long are locked into a rematch for Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, which Herrera Beutler has held since 2010. The district encompasses counties near the Oregon-Washington border, from the Columbia River Gorge to the Pacific Ocean.

Carolyn Long delivers a drive-through town hall in Washougal, Wash., on Oct. 12. Long has raised almost as much money in her 2020 campaign as she did in 2018.

Carolyn Long delivers a drive-through town hall in Washougal, Wash., on Oct. 12. Long has raised almost as much money in her 2020 campaign as she did in 2018.

Troy Brynelson / OPB

The race is likely the most expensive contest in the district’s history, according to newly released campaign finance reports. And, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, it is the most expensive race currently in the state of Washington.

“Washington isn’t really, typically, considered a battleground state,” said Sarah Bryner, director of research and strategy at the center. “I think that race is super tight, and that’s why it’s interesting to see the party spending.”

Outside groups like political action committees are limited in the amount they can donate to any one particular candidate. However, they aren’t restricted with how much money they can spend on ads supporting or tearing down a particular candidate.

Since Oct. 1, Republican groups including National Republican Congressional Committee — the GOP’s campaign arm — as well as the Governing Majority Fund and the Congressional Leadership Fund have splashed about $1 million to oppose Long, according to the center.

Specifically, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC that was once closely linked to former Republican House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan, gave $406,000. The NRCC gave another $491,000, and produced ads attacking Long as someone who will raise taxes on families and businesses.

The Governing Majority Fund, based in Florida, spent $35,000 three times on mailers, federal election records show. One such mailer calls Long a “liberal professor” whose health care plans would cost trillions of dollars and take Medicare from seniors.

Long has disputed those claims. In an Oct. 9 debate, she said she would protect Medicare, preserve the Affordable Care Act, and would support for a public option for people who want government-run health insurance.

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“This is yet another political headfake from Rep. Herrera Beutler,” said Erin Schneider, a Long campaign spokesperson. “She can’t defend her own record on health care because, well, it’s abysmal.”

An independent mailer attacking Carolyn Long in the lead up to Election Day, pictured in October 2020. Outside groups have spent more than $1 million on similar ads this month.

An independent mailer attacking Carolyn Long in the lead up to Election Day, pictured in October 2020. Outside groups have spent more than $1 million on similar ads this month.

Troy Brynelson / OPB

Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — the Democrats' campaign arm — has spent $468,292 against Herrera Beutler, the center’s data show.

“There’s been a lot more oppositional spending to Long than there has been to Herrera Beutler,” Bryner said. “Which, to me, indicates the Republicans really want to keep that seat, and that the Democrats are a little bit skeptical.”

The race has — for the second straight election cycle — been hotly contested. Long gave Herrera Beutler her toughest fight to date in 2018, finishing within 5 points. Herrera Beutler, however, won the most recent primaries in August by 17 points. Long’s camp has pointed to internal polling showing a much tighter race.

The candidates have succeeded in raising money on their own as well, according to the latest reports from the Federal Election Commission. Herrera Beutler raised about $3.7 million during the race, to Long’s $3.5 million. Long raised almost as much she did in 2018, while Herrera Beutler surpassed her previous total.

Meanwhile, Herrera Beutler maintains a lot more cash on hand: $1.7 million to Long’s $257,000. Parker Truax, spokesman for Herrera Beutler’s campaign, cited that as the reason why outside Republican groups are opening their wallets against Long.

“Outside groups want to help candidates who are running their campaigns well,” Truax said. “Long squandered her money, while Jaime managed her resources to win."

Outside spending has had a different tenor this cycle. Long has received notably less support, despite Democrats' pockets overflowing with donations this cycle.

Long’s campaign did not answer a question about why it had received less outside support. Regarding the spending spree favoring Herrera Beutler, Schneider said it was a defensive play.

“National Republicans and Dark Money Groups are coming in to try and buy the election for Herrera Beutler because they’re terrified of losing,” Schneider said.

Bryner, with the Center for Responsive Politics, said it was hard to draw firm conclusions. She said it’s possible Democratic groups are already confident with what they’ve spent, Bryner said.

“They could be like, ‘Well, we’re going to take it, and we’re moving on to other races and we’re confident about this,’” Bryner said.

Or it could mean the opposite, said Jim Moore, a political scientist from Pacific University, who closely watches elections in the Pacific Northwest.

“That probably means that Jaime Herrera Beutler looks like a more solid pick this time,” he said.

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