With the election just two weeks away, the price tag of the race for the linchpin House District 54 seat in Bend is spiraling towards $1.5 million, as a Republican freshman attempts to hold onto a district with a large Democratic voter tilt.
Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, has raised over $900,000 to try to keep the seat, while Democrat Jason Kropf has pulled in just under $400,000 for his insurgent campaign.
The stakes go well beyond Bend, as Democrats see HD 54 as the best shot to expand their 38-22 supermajority. Republicans want to keep Helt's seat and try to flip some of the suburban Portland districts they lost in 2018.
Much of the HD 54 campaign has centered on local growth and environmental issues, along with COVID-19, education, taxes and health care.
But in the past two weeks, it's unexpectedly centered on a controversy over contributions to the Kropf campaign by the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association.
Armed with a much larger campaign warchest, Helt has been able to keep the issue front-and-center in advertising and joint virtual appearances such as the recent City Club of Central Oregon forum.
Kropf returned a $10,000 contribution to the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association on Oct. 13. A Deschutes County deputy district attorney, Kropf gave back the cash after it surfaced that the attorney's group had tried to pressure a former Kropf colleague to stop criticizing him.
Jasmyn Troncoso, a former prosecutor in Deschutes County, claims in a tort notice that the DA's office was a sexist and racist workplace. She's now a prosecutor in San Bernardino, California.
Troncoso has not accused Kropf of any wrongdoing, but says he could have been more outspoken in supporting her complaints about a toxic workplace. District Attorney John Hummel ordered an outside independent review that did not support most of Troncoso's allegations. Troncoso has threatened legal action, but has not filed a lawsuit as of Tuesday.
Helt is pushing Kropf to not just return the lawyer group's cash contribution, but also pay back a $10,370 in-kind contribution and what Helt estimates is another $12,000 in individual contributions from attorneys who are members of the group. Helt said Monday she wasn't going to back off the issue because Kropf's current cashflow is low.
"That's his problem," Helt said.
Maddy Woodle, Kropf's campaign manager, said Tuesday that the $10,000 cash contribution from the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association had been returned, as noted in a filing with the Secretary of State.
Sending back an in-kind contribution was problematic.
"Since it is not returnable, the campaign will be making contributions to local Bend organizations that support those in need in our community," Woodle said.
How much the contribution flap affects the vote won't be known until Nov. 3. Oregon votes by mail and many ballots have already been sent to homes and officials report a high rate of early returns to drop boxes around the state.
As of Tuesday morning, the Oregon Secretary of State reported 17 percent of registered Democratic voters in Deschutes County have returned their ballots. Among Republicans, it was 6.8 percent.
Democratic leaders in Oregon see Helt as vulnerable — she's the latest moderate Republican to represent a district with an ever-growing Democratic voter registration edge.
As of September, Democrats have a 9,325-voter edge over Republicans in HD 54 voter registration. About a third of the district is "non-affiliated," but studies by Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University, have shown that the group tends to reflect the overall partisan vote in any district.
Helt has shown independence from the mostly staunchly conservative House Republican caucus. She's voted with Democrats on issues such as limited gun control, access to abortion and Medicaid funding. She sponsored legislation requiring vaccinations for children attending public schools that was backed by Democrats, but received almost no support from her party.
When House Republicans walked out during the 2020 session to deny a quorum for Democrats to pass a carbon cap bill, Helt was the only Republican to stay in Salem. The walkout ended the session with several bills still on the agenda.
Democrats have praised Helt's breaks with the GOP, but when it comes to election time, they would prefer to have one of their own in the HD 54 seat.
Kropf agrees with Helt on her votes with the Democrats, but party leaders say Kropf will also support a carbon cap and won't be as likely a pro-business vote as Helt has been when siding with the GOP.
While Helt has frequently criticized President Donald Trump, her party affiliation in an election where Trump is a major motivating issue for Democrats in Bend could slop over into the House race if voters aren't in the mood to split their ticket with choices from both parties.
As a swing seat, HD 54 has attracted big money before. Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, raised over $1 million in 2016 in his re-election bid against Democrat Gena Goodman-Campbell, who raised over $400,000. Buehler won the race over Goodman-Campbell by 52% to 48% of the vote.
Democrats thought they had a shot at the seat in 2018, when Buehler did not seek re-election, opting for an ultimately unsuccessful bid for governor. Bend city councilor Nathan Boddie ran unopposed in the Democratic primary. But his campaign imploded over allegations of sexual harassment. Though he remained on the ballot, Helt won 58% of the vote.
Campaign finance records as of Tuesday show Helt well ahead of Kropf in fundraising.
The numbers are just a snapshot, as they change daily. Campaigns are currently required to report donations and spending within seven days of a transaction. Large last-minute donations and expenditures are not uncommon in Oregon, where there is no limit on the size of campaign contributions.
Helt got a running start in the race, rolling over $111,918 from her campaign fund last year. She's raised an additional $796,202 since Jan. 1. Helt has spent $809,054 and now has $99,684 in available cash.
The state's list of contributions to Helt's campaign through Monday show her largest donation is a total of $152,576 from Evergreen Oregon PAC, the political arm of the House Republican Party.
Real estate and business PACs donated the other largest amounts to Helt's campaign. She's received $56,265 from the Jobs for Everyday Oregonians PAC, which receives the bulk of its funding from the Chicago-based National Association of Realtors and from a variety of Oregon real estate interests. The Oregon Realtors PAC has contributed $45,000.
The Oregon Business & Industry Candidate PAC has given Helt $55,000. The Oregon Automobile Dealers Association contributed $27,500. Helt also received $20,000 from the Association of General Contractors PAC. Oregon Health Care Association PAC has given $12,500. Helt received $10,000 from Larry Keith, CEO of Entek, an engineering firm based in Lebanon.
The list of expenditures through Monday show Helt has spent heavily with out of state companies that are frequently used by Republican candidates in Oregon.
Helt has spent $420,081 on FP1 Digital LLC, a Washington, D.C.-based campaign ad buyer focused on television. Helt has spent from $33,000 to nearly $60,000 with FP1 per week and plans to continue at the same pace.
Helt paid G Squared LLC, a Boise-based campaign consultant, a total of $96,000. Helt has paid $78,075 to Arena Communications of Salt Lake City, Utah, which makes and distributes mailers and other printed materials.
Kropf's campaign has leaned heavily on union and Democratic party funds to keep pace with Helt.
Through Tuesday, Kropf has raised $392,927 and spent $360,221. He reported having $22,961 in available funds.
More than half of Kropf's contributions - $208,511 - have been in-kind donations in which supporters lend services, staff and other resources instead of giving money directly to a candidate.
The $10,000 that Kropf returned to the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association is the second largest cash donation he has received in the campaign.
Kropf has received $68,934 from Future PAC, the political arm of the House Democratic Caucus, which includes surveys and polls. His campaign received a total of $21,255 in in-kind donations from Oregon League of Conservation Voters, which includes broadcast advertising.