POLITICS

Oregon candidate Mike Erickson threatens lawsuit to overturn election over negative ad

Ballots haven’t been mailed yet, but Oregon congressional candidate Mike Erickson is threatening a lawsuit to overturn election results if his Democratic opponent wins. 

Erickson’s threat, in a cease-and-desist letter his attorney sent Andrea Salinas’ campaign, rests on a state law that provides for elections to be overturned if a judge finds that the winner made a false statement that changed the election’s outcome. The Capital Chronicle obtained a copy of the letter.

Salinas has run ads, based on a police report, describing Erickson’s 2016 guilty plea for driving under the influence and claiming he was charged with felony drug possession. His release agreement from the Hood River County Circuit Court lists unauthorized possession of a controlled substance and the DUI, but prosecutors ultimately did not charge him for the 5 milligram oxycodone pill in his wallet after he pleaded guilty to drunken driving.

Erickson’s 2016 defense attorney on Monday said she made a “mistake” that resulted in court documents indicating his plea would result in prosecutors dismissing felony drug charges. Instead, a copy of the plea offer Hood River District Attorney Carrie Rasmussen provided Erickson’s campaign said prosecutors would “not file additional charges, including but not limited to recklessly endangering another person and unlawful possession of hydrocodone” if Erickson pleaded guilty to the DUI. 

Erickson’s civil attorney,  Jill Gibson with Lake Oswego firm Lynch Murphy McLane, has threatened defamation suits against the Capital Chronicle and other news outlets that republished an article about the DUI. But when she threatened to sue Salinas, she moved from claiming defamation to threatening legal action to overturn the election should Salinas win. 

State law prohibits knowingly making false statements about a candidate, political committee or ballot measure. If a judge determines that a candidate made a false statement that cost their opponent an election, the law states that the candidate will be removed as a nominee or elected official. 

“Your false ad could have dire consequences for you if you win this election because of how close the race is,”  Gibson wrote. “The race for Oregon’s new 6th Congressional District is much tighter than previously believed.”

National forecasters, including the Cook Political Report, consider the race competitive but give Salinas a slight edge because of the district’s voting history. President Joe Biden won the new district with 55% of the vote in 2020. 

“This increases the likelihood that you would be deprived of a successful election if it can be shown that the false ad influenced voters to not vote for Mr. Erickson,” Gibson wrote. “This showing would be relatively easy as the average voter is likely to not vote for a candidate who has been charged with felony drug charges.”

Over several decades, Oregon courts have interpreted that law to exclude opinions or statements that could reasonably be interpreted as true. In one example from 1983, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled against a state senator who objected to ads that said he introduced legislation to establish a new statewide property tax.

The legislation he introduced would have created a state fund that would have provided loans for catastrophic dental care. Bonds sold to investors would have paid for the fund, and the legislation included the option for the Legislature to levy a statewide property tax to repay investors if borrowers defaulted on their loans. The court found that the statement could therefore reasonably be interpreted as true. 

Shannon Geison, Salinas’ campaign manager, said in a statement to the Capital Chronicle that Erickson’s threats were dangerous. 

“Mike Erickson’s threats to overturn the election if he doesn’t win should raise major concerns for Oregonians who cherish democracy,” Geison said. “This behavior is dangerous and inconsistent with the values of this district. His extreme anti-choice and anti-democracy stances are out of touch with Oregonians. He can’t be trusted.”

Erickson and other Republican candidates have stoked complaints about election fraud in a state where about one in five voters and nearly 50% of Republicans believe fraud changed the results of the 2020 election. Erickson has acknowledged Biden’s victory, telling The Oregonian/OregonLive in April that Biden won, though the election was close in several states. 

“It is critically important to our democracy that Americans accept election results even when their candidate is narrowly defeated,” he said.

But he also leaned into false claims about election fraud while running in the Republican primary. His statement in the state-issued Voters’ Pamphlet before the May election included promises to sponsor legislation banning so-called “ballot harvesting,” or people other than voters returning a cast ballot, and requiring special audits of elections.

Erickson scrubbed his campaign website after the primary election, but an archived version from May showed that he listed “guaranteeing free elections that are untainted by fraud” as one of his top priorities. And he called for “new policies to ensure election integrity and fairness” in a May campaign ad.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: [email protected]. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.