Flood of outside cash spicing up Democratic primary for Oregon’s 3rd Congressional District

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
May 7, 2024 6:47 p.m. Updated: May 7, 2024 8:42 p.m.

Oregon’s 3rd District, rooted in Portland, has become a magnet for “independent expenditures” this year.

(Left to right) Democratic Party primary candidates for Oregon’s 3rd Congressional District, Maxine Dexter, Eddy Morales, and Susheela Jayapal.

(Left to right) Democratic Party primary candidates for Oregon’s 3rd Congressional District, Maxine Dexter, Eddy Morales, and Susheela Jayapal.

Photos courtesy of the campaigns / OPB

As Portland Democrats prepare to decide who should ascend to one of the country’s safest congressional seats, there’s more and more outside money looking to influence their decision.


In the last week, a month-old super PAC that has not yet disclosed any donors plunked down more than $1 million for attack ads and negative mailers against Susheela Jayapal. The ads depict Jayapal, a former Multnomah County commissioner, as complicit in Portland’s homelessness and addiction crises.

Related: OPB's Ballot Guide: Meet the candidates and learn what's at stake in Oregon's May 21 primary election

Meanwhile another candidate, Gresham City Councilor Eddy Morales, began to receive far more modest outside help from a political action committee affiliated with the National Association of Realtors. The roughly $60,000 for online ads comes as Morales has been deeply critical of independent spending in the race.

And state Rep. Maxine Dexter has continued to see significant support from 314 Action Fund, a super PAC with the stated mission of supporting Democratic candidates with a background in science. Dexter, a critical care doctor, has benefited from more than $1.6 million in positive ads from the group to date.

All of that money is making for a very different race than the sleepy elections voters in Oregon’s 3rd Congressional District are used to. Congressman Earl Blumenauer, who represented the district for 14 terms, routinely coasted to reelection during his time in office.

The outside cash is flowing into the district in the form of “independent expenditures,” money spent by outside groups on influencing a race without consultation from any of the candidates. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled such spending cannot be curtailed, making it an increasingly potent force in federal elections.

Taken together, the roughly $2.7 million in independent expenditures makes the race one of the most targeted Congressional primaries in the country this year, according to the nonprofit OpenSecrets.

That’s a reflection of how definitive the race will be in determining who replaces Blumenauer in Congress. With Democrats outnumbering Republicans in the district by more than 3-to-1, the winner on May 21 is all but guaranteed a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

So it’s no surprise that rhetoric and speculation about who is actually funding the barrage of ads populating airwaves, Instagram stories, streaming services and mailboxes has begun to abound.

In a joint press conference last week, Jayapal and Morales suggested that 314 Action, the super PAC backing Dexter, was bankrolling its ad campaign in the district with “MAGA money.” They offered no evidence.

“Maxine Dexter should immediately call on her dark money backers to disclose their donors for April so voters can make an informed choice, and to cease spending on her behalf until they do so,” Morales and Jayapal said in a joint statement.

Four other Democratic candidates in the race — Michael Jonas, Ricky Barajas, Nolan Bylenga and Rachel Rand — planned to hold a joint press conference Tuesday evening to denounce the outside cash.

Unlike some major political spenders, 314 Action Fund does disclose its donors at regular intervals. But under the reporting schedule required by the Federal Election Commission, the group can wait until May 20 to disclose those who gave it money in April — when it began its spending spree in Oregon.

Those disclosures would come just a day before the May 21 primary, when many voters have already cast their ballot. To date, the largest reported donation to the group is a $500,000 contribution from Ray Rothrock, a California venture capitalist who has almost exclusively supported Democrats in the past.


In a debate on KGW last weekend, the candidates sparred directly over the outside spending, with Morales raising the possibility that Dexter was being backed with “big pharma” money by asking her rhetorically if that was the case.

“Absolutely not,” Dexter said.

“How do you know?” Morales responded.

He did not offer evidence of pharmaceutical companies playing a role in the race, but suggested in a press release Monday that the fact Dexter definitively said she isn’t affiliated with big pharma shows she knows who is funding the 314 Action push.

Dexter has expressed gratitude to have support from 314 Action, which is also spending to support state Rep. Janelle Bynum in the Democratic primary for the 5th Congressional District. But Dexter says she also has no say in how the group spends its money, and believes that such outside spending should ultimately be barred under federal law.

“This entire thing is frankly absurd,” Dexter said during the KGW debate. “My integrity is being questioned here, which is absolutely offensive. I am here serving people and putting myself out there as an option for the voters… Our laws are being followed and I can’t change those until I get to Congress.”

Last week, the news website The Intercept published a report suggesting that pro-Israel group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, was the actual source of the 314 Action money. That report relied on anonymous comments from two Congressional Democrats.

Suspicions that AIPAC or its allies might attempt to influence the race for Blumenauer’s seat have been widespread among candidates for two reasons. First, the group has shown a willingness to oppose progressive Democrats in some races this year, in favor of candidates it believes would better support Israel.

A more important factor could be Jayapal’s younger sister. Pramila Jayapal is a Democratic congresswoman from Seattle, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and opposed by AIPAC and its allies due to her outspoken criticism of Israel’s war in Gaza. Susheela Jayapal has said she is preparing for outside money to attack her candidacy.

The science group, 314 Action, has not addressed the story suggesting it has ties to AIPAC. Ads from the group have all been supportive of Dexter, rather than attacking Jayapal, as many observers have expected to see. But now a new mystery group is taking on that role.

Late last week a super PAC calling itself Voters for Responsive Government revealed more than $1 million in negative ads against Jayapal. One calls her time on the Multnomah County Commission a “train wreck,” recounting a number of high profile challenges at the county, from struggling to spend money earmarked for homelessness to lagging ambulance response times.

FEC records show Voters for Responsive Government was created in early April. A threadbare website offers no information about who is funding the PAC or what kind of candidates it will support. To date, the attack ads against Jayapal are its only reported expense. But since the ad buys took place in May, the committee won’t have to file a more detailed report until June 20.

Cary Davidson, a Los Angeles attorney who serves as the PAC’s treasurer, did not respond to an inquiry about its funders or reasons for jumping into the Oregon race.

At the same time both Jayapal and Morales have railed against outside spending in their race, the candidates have also shown a willingness to accept the same kind of help. Like Dexter, both candidates have a section on their websites featuring so-called “redboxing,” a practice where campaigns offer instructions about what kinds of ads they would want an independent expenditure campaign to produce.

Jayapal’s site offers a set of talking points the campaign believes should be seen by “non-college voters, progressives, [and] women (especially young women, college women),” and makes clear those ads should be in the form of mailers and broadcast ads.

Among points the candidate would like voters to hear: that she “is the most progressive in this race, the champion we need to push for bold, progressive solutions like securing abortion rights, passing Medicare for All and the Green New Deal…”

Morales’ directions are less targeted, listing some attributes the campaign says “all likely Democratic primary voters across the district need to see, read, and see on the go…” Proposed talking points include Morales’ experience as a person whose mother came to the U.S. from Mexico in the trunk of a car, and whose two brothers were killed in separate shootings.

“Progressive Democrat Eddy Morales has the lived experience and the record of results to fight for us in Congress,” reads a bolded section of the candidate’s tacit instructions to supporters.