The cash war behind this year’s high-stakes race for Oregon secretary of state has played out with few surprises
State Sen. Shemia Fagan has seen eye-popping support from public employee unions, and state and national organizations affiliated with Democrats — fairly typical for a statewide Democratic candidate. Some of that money helped see Fagan through a hypercompetitive primary race for her party’s nomination.
Republican Sen. Kim Thatcher’s chief supporters are timber groups, gun advocates and business interests, all constituencies that tend to support Oregon Republicans.
But one big donor is new to the scene. On Oct. 16, a southern Oregon resident named Francis E. Fowler IV became far and away Thatcher’s largest single benefactor when he donated $100,000 to her campaign.
That’s a notable gift in any race — and more than double the amount any other person or organization has given Thatcher this year. It’s especially eye-catching because Fowler is a relative unknown in state politics.
The 72-year-old, the apparent grandson of a liquor magnate, has never donated in a state political race despite living in the Medford area for a decade. Now he’s written the largest check from an individual donor to a candidate this election cycle, not including candidates funding their own races.
Why the sudden, pronounced interest in state politics?
“I’ve got a good answer for you,” Fowler said Wednesday in a brief interview. “I’ve seen the State of Oregon crumble under some of the worst Democratic management I can imagine. I was willing to do anything as an individual to put a stop to it.”
Fowler said he’d been moved to action by property damage and looting that has at times occurred in Portland amid months of demonstrations for racial justice. He singled out Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, saying she should be thrown out immediately,
“To allow that stuff to happen during the pandemic while people are losing their jobs,” Fowler said. “There’s probably people that support burning and looting, but I’m not one of them.”
Fowler doesn’t know a great deal about Thatcher. He came across her path when he was invited to a virtual fundraiser for her campaign by former Republican state Sen. Alan DeBoer, with whom he shares ownership of an airplane.
DeBoer, who served with Thatcher in the Senate, said Thursday he included Fowler among a large group of invitees to that event and had no idea he’d give so much.
“I’m shocked at what he did. Completely shocked,” DeBoer said. “It was kind of a lark.”
DeBoer and many others in his party view the race for secretary of state as Oregon’s most crucial campaign this year. Not only are Republicans looking to keep control of the seat after winning it in 2016, but whoever holds the position could steer the course of Oregon politics for the next decade. That’s because it will fall to the secretary of state to redraw legislative and congressional districts next year if lawmakers can’t work out a new map on their own.
“Redistricting is the biggest thing in Oregon,” DeBoer said.
Fowler said he was moved to action by the fundraising event, and that he “didn’t have a chance to really think seriously” about his donation.
“She’s an honest person,” he said of Thatcher. “I sat down with her and talked to her.”
The generosity could prove crucial for Thatcher’s campaign, which has trailed Fagan in fundraising by more than $1 million and which state records suggest has far less cash on hand as election day nears.
“This donor was concerned about the abundance of donations my opponent was receiving from government union groups and wanted to make sure I had enough resources to get my message out to voters,” Thatcher said in a statement. “I am grateful for his support and all the donations from thousands of other grassroots supporters across Oregon.”
As of Thursday afternoon, Thatcher reported having less than $10,000, compared to more than $300,000 reported by the Fagan campaign. It’s not clear how current either of those numbers are, since campaigns have a week to report campaign finance transactions.
Though $100,000 from an individual wealthy donor is an outlier this cycle, big checks from interest groups have been commonplace in high-interest races. Oregon currently has no limits on campaign contributions, though voters will decide next week whether to explicitly allow such limits in the state’s Constitution.
Fagan recently received $100,000 from a group called the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which was founded to push back against gerrymandering in Republican-led states. Between her primary and general election races, she has gotten more than $360,000 in support from the state’s largest public-sector union, Service Employees International Union Local 503. She’s also received aggregate support in excess of $100,000 from other unions, the state Democratic Party, and the national group Emily’s List, which supports progressive female candidates.
By contrast, Thatcher’s campaign has reported receiving at least $100,000 from one person: Fowler. Her second largest aggregate contributor is Timber Unity, a group that sprang up in 2019 to oppose climate change legislation it argued would devastate the logging industry. The group has spent more than $45,000 purchasing ads, mailers and yard signs for the campaign.
Fowler insists his contribution isn’t the start of a trend. While he called his generosity to Thatcher an attempt to “fix the world,” he also stressed he’s not planning to become active in state politics.
“I’ve got some extra money,” said Fowler. “I just decided this is the one time I can make a difference.”
Though Fowler has kept a relatively low profile, men who have shared his name are more well known. Francis E. Fowler Jr. was a salesman who brought the liqueur Southern Comfort to prominence. A museum at UCLA is named in the elder Fowler’s honor and houses a collection of fine silver he amassed. According to news articles, that Francis Fowler had a son named Francis E. Fowler III.
Asked Wednesday whether he was related to the well-known silver collector and liquor executive, Francis E. Fowler IV paused before saying, “You’re getting off-topic. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”