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Wehby gets tangled in money web

Oregon’s U.S. Senate race between incumbent Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, and his Republican challenger, Monica Wehby, just got a lot more complicated.

In early August, a political action committee set up by two billionaire industrialist brothers — Charles and David Koch — jumped headlong into the campaign by committing $3.6 million to pay for television advertisements on behalf of Wehby in her bid to unseat Merkley.

Merkley has his own sources of big dollars, but the donations of his top contributors — $71,625 from the League of Conservation Voters and $30,300 from Intel, according to OpenSecrets.org, a nonpartisan website that tracks the influence of money in U.S. elections — are not in the same league as what the Koch brothers’ political action committee has kicked in for Wehby.

Neither Charles Koch (Wichita, Kans.) nor David Koch (Manhattan, N.Y.) lives in Oregon, but their money is sure on the way. It is being routed through the Freedom Partners Action Fund, the name of the political action organization the Koch brothers created in 2011, and it is expected to make an impact.

Freedom Partners has supported numerous conservative and Tea Party causes over the past several years. In the 2012 election cycle, for example, the political action group contributed $236 million to back selected candidates.

Throwing huge bags of money at elections is a fact of life in the modern era, but that doesn’t mean we like seeing millions pouring in from out of state in an attempt to influence a contest here in Oregon. The first question we have is, what do the Koch brothers (and Freedom Partners) hope to get in exchange for all this money?

Because of her career in medicine, Wehby — a pediatric neurosurgeon who lives in Portland — is perceived by many conservatives as a perfect candidate for 2014, given the supposed unpopularity of Obamacare and the well-documented troubles Oregon has experienced with its Cover Oregon program.

Can Wehby, with the Koch brothers’ help, succeed in breaking through with her message against a relatively popular incumbent running in a state that has been trending more Democratic in statewide races over the past 20 years?

A few years ago in the “Citizens United” case, the Supreme Court ruled that money is speech, and as such, no limits could be placed on how much a donor could spend in contributions to political action committees, whether progressive or conservative. But we believe there is something unseemly about bringing in so-called “dark money” to influence the outcome of political races. The phrase “dark money” comes from the fact that, no matter who creates a political action committee, others can donate unlimited amounts of their cash to it — and can do so secretly.

Despite the questions the massive donation raises, however, Wehby spokesman Dean Petrone was quoted as saying the campaign is not at all troubled by the influx of outside cash.

“The willingness of outside groups to take a look means Oregon is back on the map,” said Petrone.

There are drawbacks with allowing a pair of ultra-rich out-of-staters to parachute in with millions of dollars, however. The move could backfire and allow Merkley to more easily paint Wehby as just another partisan Republican supported by “big money” interests. Further, Wehby appears to want to portray herself as a new kind of Republican, but the anonymous money going to her campaign tends to puncture that image.

The massive infusion of Koch dollars to the Wehby campaign may or may not alter the race, but Oregonians should ask themselves if being supported by this much money from one source is truly “free speech” — or is it something sinister?



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