Oregon’s largest labor union is putting an unprecedented amount of money into backing Tina Kotek in this year’s governor’s race, as Democrats worry they could lose the seat for the first time in decades.
The Service Employees International Union has contributed an additional $1 million to the Democratic nominee, according to Felisa Hagins, political director for SEIU Local 49. That amount, still unreflected in state campaign finance records Wednesday afternoon, comes on top of nearly $700,000 the union has already donated to Kotek’s campaign via five separate political funds.
The money marks by far the most that SEIU, which has more than 55,000 members in Oregon, has spent on a candidate in the state. It contributed less than $1.2 million to Gov. Kate Brown’s re-election in 2018, state campaign finance records show.
Hagins suggested the money was partly necessary because 2022 is a hugely expensive year. The three-way gubernatorial contest also features well-heeled nonaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson and Republican Christine Drazan, who like Kotek has seen major financial backing from national party interests.
Together the three women are poised to shatter political spending records in the state. As of Wednesday, the campaigns had reported spending $42.77 million this election cycle, with nearly a month to go. That’s more than the record nearly $40 million spent by Gov. Kate Brown and Republican Knute Buehler in the 2018 governor race.
“We just haven’t had a governor’s race that’s this expensive,” Hagins said.
The move is also a sign of Democratic anxiety a week before ballots start heading to Oregon voters.
Recent polling has shown Kotek and Drazan neck-and-neck. Johnson looks like a distant third, but speculation differs on whether the former conservative Democrat will siphon more votes from the Republican or Democratic nominee.
That uncertainty has led members of both parties to plead with voters not to vote for Johnson, who they say has no chance of winning. Kotek’s campaign held an event on Tuesday at which her supporters made just such an appeal.
“Oregon is in real danger of electing an anti-choice Republican as our next governor,” An Do, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon, said during the event. “...Especially after the overturning of [Roe v. Wade], this is terrifying.”
Stoking voter fears is a time-tested strategy for increasing turnout, but Hagins said on Tuesday the concerns voiced by Democratic allies are “very real.” One strong sign of that: An impending visit from President Joe Biden, who is scheduled to land in Oregon on Friday in a stop partly aimed at boosting Kotek.
SEIU’s stepped-up involvement in the race is likely to be noted by Kotek’s critics, who suggest she is beholden to public-sector unions.
The labor donation also comes at a notable time for the Democrat, who this week also held an event in which she pledged to push for campaign contribution limits if elected governor. Oregon is one of a handful of states with no regulations on how much individuals, businesses, nonprofits and political committees can give to candidates and causes.
“Tina is the only candidate elevating this issue in her campaign because it’s a priority that she will bring forward as Governor,” said Katie Wertheimer, a spokeswoman for the campaign. “In the meantime -- the laws are what they are, and Tina is building a campaign to win.”
But Kotek’s commitment to regulations has been somewhat vague. She says she supports strict limits on donations from individuals and has been extremely critical of billionaire Phil Knight. The Nike co-founder has poured $6.75 million into state races this year, including massive checks to both of Kotek’s opponents.
Kotek says individual citizens should be limited to giving $2,000 to statewide candidates like her, but her campaign website includes no defined limits for political action committees.
Like many Democrats, Kotek has suggested that so-called small donor committees, which cobble together money based on small contributions from many people, should have higher limits on political giving than individuals and other political committees. That’s a concept often opposed by Republicans since it could advantage unions like SEIU, which collect the money they spend on politics via regular, voluntary contributions from members.
“Our $1 million,” Hagins said, “is not Phil Knight’s $1 million.”
With its donation, SEIU cements its status as Kotek’s second-largest donor. It’s still far behind the $4.87 million donated so far by the Democratic Governors Association.
Similarly, Drazan has seen much of her support come from national Republicans, with the Republican Governors Association giving her more than $4.1 million. Knight is Johnson’s top donor, with contributions of $3.75 million, though he recently signaled he now believes Drazan is the candidate most likely to defeat Kotek.