Almost all of the races on which CQPolitics.com has changed its ratings this year have reflected stronger prospects for Democratic victories. One of these, in fact, was the contest in Oregon’s 5th District, which CQ in August shifted to Safe Democratic from Democrat Favored.
Although this Willamette Valley constituency is split almost down the middle between the parties, five-term Democratic Rep. Darlene Hooley appeared to hold over insuperable advantages over her Republican challenger, transportation services company executive Mike Erickson, a first-time candidate recruited by Republican officials just before the filing deadline in March.
But Erickson decided to show his personal commitment to the contest by pouring more than $1 million of his own money into his campaign treasury. And since $1 million is real money in any House campaign, CQPolitics.com has decided to shift the rating back to Democrat Favored.
Ironically, though, the big personal expenditures by Erickson have triggered a provision of the federal campaign finance law — known as the “millionaire’s amendment”— that could enable the well-seasoned incumbent to at least partially even the score.
The provision requires candidates who exceed a certain level of self-funding, set by a formula in the law, to notify the Federal Election Commission. Certification of these self-financing levels automatically boosts the law’s limit on individual contributions to the opposing candidate to $6,300 per person — three times the usual maximum of $2,100.
Erickson triggered the provision with a filing on Oct. 3 that showed he has reached into his own pockets for a little more than $1 million.
The money Erickson loaned to his campaign has enabled him to keep up a prolonged media blitz, mostly based in the Portland media market, that has saturated the 5th District.
While many of his ads are addressed at simply telling voters who he is, some have attacked Hooley. Ads have accused her of having a poor committee attendance record and toeing the Democratic Party line, with the implication that she is too liberal to represent this partisan swing district.
He has drawn outside support from a Republican-aligned political action organization, the Economic Freedom Fund, which recently spent more than $300,000 on media buys and other electioneering in support of Erickson.
Hooley has responded in kind, calling attention to Erickson’s lack of political experience, and utilizing a campaign treasury that was already substantial even before the millionaire’s amendment increased her fundraising potential for the final month of the campaign.
Hooley had more than $800,000 at the end of June, the last date for which financial reports are available for this race. Much more up-to-date figures, through Sept. 30, are due to be filed with the FEC by Oct. 15.
Erickson will need every last dollar to even become seriously competitive, no less upset Hooley. The 5th District encompasses the state capital of Salem as well as parts of Portland and Corvallis and wide swaths of more rural areas in Clackamas County, making blanket TV and radio coverage difficult.
Further hindering any Republican hopes for a late campaign surge is Oregon’s unique electoral system, under which all ballots are either cast by mail or personal dropoff at collection sites during a voting period that begins for most residents between Oct. 20 and 24 and runs through the national Election Day of Nov. 7.
One analyst also said that Erickson appears to be banking almost exclusively on a media campaign in lieu of a grass-roots presence. “I haven’t seen any evidence of a ground game from Erickson,” says author and blogger Randy Stapilus. “Absent of anything else, media presence isn’t going to win this election.”
That may especially be the case given that one of Hooley’s greatest political strengths is her emphasis on meeting with constituents and working on local rather than national issues, particularly in rural areas of her district that in other contests tend to favor Republicans.
Republicans have targeted Hooley several times since she won her first term in 1996, but she has won each time by comfortable (though far from overwhelming) margins. She defeated her 2004 challenger, Jim Zupancic, by 8 percentage points.
“Were [Hooley] not as good as she is at constituent service, she might be in trouble,” says Oregon State University Professor Bill Lunch. “Erickson probably looked at the map before he got into the race and saw that it leans Republican and figured he could make inroads there. . . . When Hooley retires or otherwise leaves the job, that district will be in play. As long as she’s there, I can’t see her being that vulnerable.”
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