In Bend, big money fuels partisan fight for Oregon House
Representing Bend has become one of the most expensive jobs in Oregon state politics. Campaigns for House District 54 have broken a combined $1 million in contributions, with a majority coming from Republican backers hoping to keep a seat with statewide consequences.
If Republican Rep. Cheri Helt loses reelection, it could be a key win for Democrats who presently control 38 seats in the Oregon House. Should two more flip, Democratic lawmakers would be able to carry votes without any Republicans showing up.
Helt has personally disavowed walking out as a strategy, as she’s tried to stay in the good graces of House District 54′s moderate voters. She stayed in the Capitol when her Republican colleagues shut down the Legislature by walking out in 2019 and again in 2020, to prevent voting on legislation that would have otherwise passed along party lines.
Though Helt split from her party, the House Republican PAC has spent more than $150,000 to defeat the Democratic nominee, longtime Deschutes County Deputy District Attorney Jason Kropf.
While both have had long careers influencing services for youth and children in Central Oregon — Helt as a school board member and Kropf in the juvenile justice system — the costly race has become increasingly adversarial, with lots of the money going toward attack ads.
Two weeks before the election, a single non-affiliated voter had gotten 14 mailers for this one House race, half of them attacking the Democratic candidate’s moral fiber.
In many ways, the gloves-off partisan fight is at odds with a brand Helt has built since 2018. She’s called herself a moderate, independent leader who isn’t afraid to go against powerful interests within her own party. Earlier this year, she denounced President Trump as unfit for office.
“I don’t fit neatly into a box and no one’s ever going to make me fit neatly into a box,” said the Bend restaurant owner, noting she’s also the nominee for the Independent Party of Oregon.
She was one of just two Republicans to vote for a bill that established zero-emissions vehicle goals. Helt supported driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, and a law that makes it harder for people convicted of domestic violence to buy guns.
“It’s really important that we have a small government and that our government is fiscally responsible,” she said. “I’m pro-choice. I’m pro-gun safety.”
Helt also introduced a bill to end religious exemptions on school-aged vaccinations.
“Those are hard things. They require a lot of courage. When I was doing the vaccine bill, they put a police officer at the garage to make sure that we could safely get in,” Helt recalled.
The vaccine bill passed the House, only to be blocked by Senate Republicans. Helt said she will take up the issue again, if reelected.
Democratic nominee Kropf has frequently criticized her approach to education funding. Helt favors paying for schools solely through the state’s general fund. She voted no on the Student Success Act, which bolstered school funding through a new gross receipts tax on businesses with $1 million or more in sales.
“If we did a better job of investing in all Oregonians, and providing for that social safety net, we would see less of the 13- and 14-year-olds at court that I see every day who are struggling, starting to lose connection with school,” said the prosecutor specializing in juvenile cases.
Kropf maintains that targeted revenue generation like the tax created through the Student Success Act addresses the inequities created by underfunding education, evidenced by lower graduation rates among students of color and those struggling with poverty.
Both candidates acknowledge similar problems facing Bend: the pandemic, inequities in education, climate change, wildfire risk, unemployment, and an affordable housing crisis.
“The fundamental difference is that she says, ‘It costs too much to make those investments.’ And I believe it’s too costly to not make those investments,” Kropf said.
He’s promised to champion affordable housing initiatives in a city where the median home price now exceeds $520,000.
With a booming population driving the home market, demographics in Bend have also shifted. Democratic voters in HD 54 outnumber Republican and Independent registrations combined. That registration gap has been widening since 2008, but it may not guarantee trouble for Helt. GOP candidates have still won the seat six out of the last seven times.
Helt won handily in 2018. Back then, a Democratic nominee was credibly accused of sexual misconduct. Then, a different candidate dropped out after it came to light that she provided false information for the voter’s guide. In both cases, Helt’s campaign steered clear of negative advertising. Now, faced with an opponent who is not mired in scandal, Helt has defended the strategy.
“I’m not accusing him [Kropf] of any crime. I think he’s a nice person. He just has not chosen to use his voice where I believe he should have,” Helt said.
The ads against Kropf imply the prosecutor is soft on human trafficking cases or that he knew about alleged gender- and race-based discrimination in the Deschutes County district attorney’s office, but did nothing about it. Close review of those incidents show Kropf had little to no involvement in either situation outside being employed by the district attorney.
The ads label Kropf a “failed politician, wrong for Bend” and a “do nothing DA” who “failed to protect victims of human trafficking.” One mailer features a stock photo of a weeping child; others carry a warning label like what the Surgeon General puts on cigarette packs. Meanwhile, Kropf’s campaign has been more subdued and focused on common political approaches for Oregon, such as targeting Helt’s voting record in Salem.
The difference in tone takes a page from the national GOP under President Trump, according to political scientist Jim Moore.
“Oregon is becoming more partisan, and partly it’s because of races like this,” said Moore, the director of political outreach for Pacific University’s Tom McCall Center for Civic Engagement.
“Both parties have seen people who do this, but this is what Donald Trump traffics in,” Moore said. “It’s designed to make your opponent look bad and even evil.”
Kropf responded that Helt is “denigrating my 18 years of service to the community.”
“I’m trying to have a campaign about the biggest issues … and how we can move forward and have an honest, forthright discussion about the choices that voters have before us,” he said.
In general, negative ads have a short-term effect on voters, according to Moore. The ads are forgotten in a matter of days, “but it does tend to excite your supporters and to suppress the turnout of the opponent’s supporters.”
Which is exactly what Helt needs to do if she’s going to prevail in a district where the changing demographics are not in her party’s favor. Holding onto a core of Republican voters while still gathering the coalition of moderates she won in 2018 will be key for Helt and the broader Oregon Republican Party. If she loses, Democrats in Salem may have a clear path to take action on policy issues, even if the other side of the aisle isn’t in the room.
Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting