By Lily Raff McCaulou
PORTLAND — An organization with ties to the Koch brothers — billionaire businessmen renowned for bankrolling conservative causes and tea party candidates — has waded into Oregon’s U.S. Senate race.
Freedom Partners, a group closely linked to Charles and David Koch, is reportedly buying millions of dollars in television advertising to boost Republican challenger Dr. Monica Wehby’s chances of ousting Democratic incumbent Jeff Merkley.
A spokesman from Freedom Partners confirmed to The Bulletin on Monday that this is the first time the group has spent money in Oregon, but he declined to give details on how much the group plans to spend here.
The advertising purchase was first reported by Politico last week, on the heels of the candidates’ quarterly fundraising filings with the Federal Election Commission. Filings show that Merkley raised about twice as much money from April through June as Wehby did.
But news of Freedom Partners’ decision to spend money here indicates that at least some Republicans believe one of Oregon’s Senate seats could turn from blue to red.
Freedom Partners is a membership organization, similar to a chamber of commerce but with annual dues of at least $100,000. In 2012, the Virginia-based group raised and spent roughly $250 million to back candidates and influence policy debate.
The group’s website states: “We seek to build support for a fiscally responsible government, and policies that support entrepreneurship, spur job creation, and increase opportunities for all.” It focuses spending on four areas: “health care reform, federal spending, energy policy and cronyism.”
Election laws do not limit the amount of money that groups such as Freedom Partners may spend. But laws do prohibit a candidate’s official campaign from coordinating with such groups.
Dean Petrone, a spokesman for Wehby’s campaign, said Wehby learned of Freedom Partners’ television ads “the same way you guys did — through news outlets. … I think Merkley’s crew might have known before we did.”
Merkley’s deputy campaign director, Andrew Zucker, said Monday that campaign workers were tracking the Freedom Partners’ ad buy and on Monday it had topped $3.1 million.
A spokesman for Merkley said Freedom Partners is investing in this election because its “billionaire members” believe Wehby’s tax plans would benefit them.
“These Koch brothers, they’ve made billions of dollars through oil and coal,” spokesman Jamal Raad said. “They’ve said they’d spend $290 million this election cycle. … Two million dollars is a lot of money in Oregon. But for them, it’s like going out for coffee.”
Raad said Merkley’s campaign was not surprised to hear the Koch brothers had turned their eyes to Oregon.
“Jeff has really taken on some powerful institutions in Washington — big oil, Wall Street. … And Monica Wehby has pretty much endorsed the Republican line that … could save them hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said.
Petrone, of Wehby’s campaign, said Merkley’s campaign recently bought $2 million worth of television advertising, to air during the last five weeks of the race.
“It speaks volumes to the fact that Monica Wehby’s candidacy is being taken seriously,” Petrone said. “That’s two-thirds of the cash they have on hand. They wouldn’t be spending that if they weren’t feeling threatened.”
Petrone said the Freedom Partners ads won’t change anything within Wehby’s campaign.
“I truly think that money isn’t going to be a factor in this race,” he said. “Since 2008, the top issues have been jobs and the economy. Those are two things that Jeff Merkley just hasn’t delivered on.”
According to FEC filings this month, Merkley’s campaign has about $3.5 million cash on hand, and Wehby’s has about $646,831. In this election cycle, Merkley has raised about $8.7 million and Wehby has raised about $2.05 million.
The fundraising gap is significant — but also reminiscent of the 2008 Senate race in Oregon. By July, Merkley had raised $2.5 million and had $500,000 in cash. Republican incumbent Gordon Smith had raised $9.4 million and had $4.5 million in cash.
But money doesn’t always translate into votes. That November, Merkley went on to win.
— Reporter: 541-410-9207, firstname.lastname@example.org,