SALEM — Advocates have long tried to curtail political spending in Oregon, and are back at it again now, circulating an initiative petition in an effort to let voters decide, in 2020, whether to allow limits.

Those efforts got a boost Tuesday after Patrick Starnes, the Independent Party of Oregon candidate, bowed out of the race for governor Tuesday. It was his chief cause.

Oregon is one of a handful of states that don’t limit contributions to state candidates, political action committees or ballot measures.

That lack of limitations has been on display in this year’s gubernatorial contest, as Democratic Gov. Kate Brown and her Republican opponent, state Rep. Knute Buehler, have amassed record sums for their campaign.

Proponents of campaign finance reform say that the current system allows a wealthy few to have outsize influence on the outcome of elections.

And they say that state of affairs may disenfranchise the average voter.

Phil Keisling was Oregon secretary of state from 1991 to 1999, including a brief period in the mid-1990s when Oregon did limit campaign contributions.

“I think the average voter has long felt sidelined as they watched ever-increasing rivers of cash flow into campaigns,” Keisling said, “And it’s been a key factor in making them disheartened, even at times cynical, about politics. And it also … really affects candidates too, because they spend increasing and inordinate amounts of time not talking to the typical voter but simply courting the big donors.”

Opponents, on the other hand, argue that limiting campaign contributions could stifle free expression.

In 1997 the Oregon Supreme Court struck down limits on individual contributions imposed by voters in 1994. The court ruled that campaign contributions are a form of speech protected by the state constitution.

Kate Titus, Oregon state director for Common Cause, a nonpartisan group that advocates for government reforms, said Oregon is the “wild west” of campaign finance and believes there is an urgent need for reform.

Titus pointed to the millions of dollars pouring into the governor’s race.

Nike co-founder Phil Knight has given $2.5 million to Knute Buehler, and another $1 million to the Republican Governors Association.

And on the measure front, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave $1.5 million to the campaign opposing a ban on grocery taxes in the Oregon, the largest single donation since Oregon started electronically tracking donations.

“Is that much money needed to get the message out? I don’t think so,” Titus said. “And I think the plethora of attack ads we’re seeing on TV, that’s not informing the debate or raising the bar, so we could definitely limit the money in campaigns, however, we have a constitutional issue.”

This fall, reform advocates got approval to circulate a petition that would put campaign finance reform on the ballot in 2020. The measure wouldn’t create limits, but would simply amend the constitution to make such limits legal.

Oregon voters faced such a two-step effort to rein in campaign spending in 2006. That year, voters approved capping personal donations and restricting independent expenditures by unions, corporations or other entities supporting or opposing a candidate or political party.

They turned down, however, the constitutional amendment that would have allowed those limits to go into effect.

The 2020 measure also seeks to amend the constitution, considered the best way to impose limits that courts would accept.

On Tuesday, Brown committed to some effort to limit campaign funding. She did so first in a meeting with Starnes. Before becoming governor, Brown served in the Legislature and then as secretary of state from 2009 to 2015. 

Jason Kafoury, a leader of Honest Elections Oregon, which supports campaign finance reform efforts, expressed consternation over what he characterized as the inaction of the Legislature on the issue.

"Kate Brown has consistently advocated for limits on contributions, since before 2008,” Kafoury said in a statement. “However, nothing has happened statewide because she has not been able to convince her own party, the Democrats, to lift a finger to make it happen.”

A spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Oregon did not comment on the issue Tuesday, but provided party platform language outlining support for “publicly funded elections” with restrictions on contributions.

“No legislative effort has pushed for contribution limits, and even had a floor vote, I don’t think, and the state Democratic Party has consistently challenged any effort for contribution limits for decades,” Kafoury said. “And now they’re paying the price because a billionaire like Phil Knight can give unlimited money to their opponent."

Dan Meek, a public interest attorney and co-chair of the Independent Party of Oregon, said it’s possible that Knight’s historically large donations could also change Oregon Democrats’ minds about campaign contributions.

He also pointed to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus vs. AFSCME, finding that public employee unions couldn’t assess fees for labor negotiations to public employees who weren’t union members.

Public employee unions are typically among the biggest donors to Democratic candidates and liberal causes in the state.

“Nobody really knows how much that will affect the budgets of the public employee unions, but that will affect the budgets to some degree, so they will have less money to give to political campaigns,” Meek said.

Meek said that as a statewide candidate, Starnes worked to advocate for campaign finance reform in small towns throughout the state.

“I think he spread the message to places it otherwise wouldn’t have gone, and explained the situation to folks who might not otherwise have paid attention,” Meek said. “I think he did a good thing.”

Reporter Claire Withycombe: [email protected] or 503-385-4903. Withycombe is a reporter for the East Oregonian working for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group, and Salem Reporter.