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Brown, Buehler continue to get, and spend, millions

Knute Buehler has raised a little over $14 million to Kate Brown's $13.3 million.

Two weeks from election day, a spending frenzy continues in the race to be Oregon's governor.

Gov. Kate Brown and state Rep. Knute Buehler have combined to spend millions of dollars on late-season TV ad buys in what a month ago crossed the threshold as the most expensive race in state history. Since then, the two have raised nearly $10 million more.

For the campaign, Buehler has raised a little over $14 million to Brown's $13.3 million.

However, their campaign finance disclosures only show part of the picture, according to political consultant Len Bergstein of Northwest Strategies.

"I'm not sure we know every dollar that's in the race, particularly with these dark money organizations," he said.

Dark money organizations, like Priority Oregon, can independently buy ads to support a candidate, as long as they do so without direction of the campaigns. Such organizations don't have to disclose their finances until after the election.

As of Oct. 15, the most recent data available from the state Elections Division, expenditures for Buehler totaled $11.5 million, topping $10.4 million by Brown. And on Monday, before new spending by both, the candidates each had more than $3.5 million remaining in their treasuries.

That means voters are likely to see more advertising in the coming days.

Oregon Independent Party candidate, Patrick Starnes, said the money in this election is ridiculous. Starnes has made campaign finance reform the primary issue of his campaign, and has capped donations at $100. As of Wednesday he had raised $7,497.

Christian Gaston, spokesman for Brown's campaign, said it's unfortunate that Nike co-founder Phil Knight and the Republican Governors Association have been allowed to donate a combined $4.5 million to Buehler. Knight also gave the Republican Governors Association $1 million around the time that group donated near that amount to Buehler. The association has said donors do not direct where it money goes.

"What causes concern is Knute Buehler is trying to pound a for sale sign in front of the Oregon Capitol," Gaston said. "If he wins, is he going to install a red phone that goes straight to Phil Knight?"

The large donations have caught attention outside Oregon. On Wednesday, Rolling Stone Magazine published "Why Is Nike's Founder Putting Millions Behind a Trump-y Republican During the Kaepernick Campaign?" The story speculates about Knight's motivation.

"That's a prime example of how terrible the campaign finance laws are in Oregon," Starnes said of the large donations. "We have a lot of work to do."

Knight's contributions have surprised many, and he has rebuffed local and national media seeking an explanation.

"Absolutely we are alarmed that there is a billionaire in Phil Knight that is trying to purchase an agenda," said Molly Woon, spokeswoman for the Oregon Democratic Party.

And while mega donors help, the campaigns continue to solicit more modest contributions from supporters. The onslaught of donation-seeking emails both campaigns send out repeatedly each day suggests that only the election will bring a halt to such fundraising.

On Tuesday, Buehler's campaign sent out an email seeking $927,535 in new donations before the election to sway 307,000 likely voters it believes are undecided. Brown sent out a donation email that also asked for volunteers to canvas for the governor.

"While we don't comment on specific campaign strategy, we are using every channel of communication to deliver Knute's message in these final two weeks," Jordan Conger said via text message. "We will also invest in (get out the vote) efforts to make sure every possible voter turns out and votes in this important election."

Gaston said the focus down the stretch will be on grassroots voter outreach rather than TV ads.

"We're focused on ensuring every young Oregonian, and every Oregonian who's able to cast a ballot, does," he said. In response to the fundraising success of Buehler's camp, Gaston quoted Brown saying "Republicans might have the money, but we have the people."

Woon said she thinks Knight's contributions have inspired Brown supporters.

"We are seeing hundreds of people go out every weekend and knock on thousands of doors," she said.

That being said, neither side has been shy about spending.

On Oct. 15, Buehler reported a one-time buy of $1.15 million on broadcast advertising through Strategic Media Services and FP1 Digital LLC. His campaign so far has reported spending more than $6.5 million on broadcasting time through Strategic Media.

Brown appears to be trailing Buehler in advertising spending, according to campaign finance records. On Oct. 15, she reported spending $324,983 on online advertising through Rising Tide LLC and $972,628 through Buying Time LLC for radio and TV ads. So far, Brown has spent $4.6 million on radio and TV spots through Buying Time.

The candidates have also started to spread money around their parties. On Oct. 15, Buehler gave $114,000 to the Oregon Republican Party and another $1,200 to the Washington County Republicans. On Oct. 12, Brown gave the Oregon Democratic Party $85,000.

The late blitz from both candidates comes after a summer of incessant TV. So, are the candidates really reaching anyone new, or preaching to the same Oregonians month after month?

Bergstein, who worked on several gubernatorial campaigns in the 1970s, said voters tune in to campaigns at different times, so there are still plenty of people to court. Campaigns now have far better data on who voted and who didn't.

Data compiled by the Brown campaign shows that as of Tuesday morning, 38,037 Oregonians had sent in their ballot. 19,946 were Democrats and 9,841 were Republicans.

However, Bergstein warned of an "annoyance factor" campaigns can achieve by showing too many ads.

"There is a limit to what you can do effectively with lots of money at the end," he said.

And Gaston agreed, as did Starnes.

"I am sure there are going to be folks shutting down," Starnes said. "I hope the voter turnout is strong. The big money and the big ads and the two-party bickering, all that turns voters off."

Starnes isn't spending his money on the airwaves. He's spending it on gas. When reached Tuesday in southern Oregon, Starnes said he was just two counties shy of campaigning in every county in the state.

While major campaign spending hasn't changed in the past five decades, how money is spent has. Bergstein said today, TV commercials are much better and more expensive, as are the tools campaigns use to target specific voters. Bergstein said campaigns used to break down messaging by area, rather than person. But now, it's quite possible a voter will be targeted with a different message than their neighbor.

Bergstein said the 2016 election was a referendum on national political strategy, and now outside conservative groups are using Oregon as a testing ground for their ideas.

Buehler and his brand of trying to appeal to Democrats and Republicans could be a model for Republican candidates in other states. That interest has pulled outside dollars into the race, Bergstein said.

"If he's attractive in deep-blue Oregon, he will be very attractive in purple America," Bergstein said.

Reporter Aubrey Wieber: aubrey@salemreporter.com or 503-575-1251. He is a reporter for Salem Reporter working with the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of the Pamplin Media Group, EO Media Group, and Salem Reporter.