The final weeks of the campaign to replace Rep. Earl Blumeaneur in Congress have been dominated by reporting on a single issue: the millions of dollars of outside spending that have flooded in to try to stop the candidacy of former Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal. 

The money, as The Intercept and other outlets have reported, is coming predominantly from one source: AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby that appears to have soured on Jayapal for her pro-ceasefire stance in the aftermath of the October 7 attack in Israel and subsequent assault on Gaza. 

With no limit on outside spending, the deluge of money spent to defeat Jayapal has been eye-popping: Jayapal’s key opponent, state representative and physician Maxine Dexter, is reportedly being backed by an outside expenditure campaign on pace to exceed $3 million by the time the primary ends on Tuesday. Dexter’s campaign  raised nearly $220,000 in a single day last week, with the vast majority of those contributions coming from outside of Oregon. 

The outside spending, in some ways, is setting the race up as a test of how amenable Portland voters are to outside campaign interference, generally, as well as outside spending from the Israel lobby and aligned right-wing forces in particular. If Dexter wins, the consequences may be wide-ranging. 

“We’d never see the end of [outside spending] in races that are controversial,” Nick Caleb, an environmental attorney who has called on Dexter to condemn the outside spending, said.

It’s not just the 3rd District race that has seen a flood of outside money. The Democratic primary in the 5th District, where Jamie McLeod-Skinner is facing Janelle Bynum, has seen a similar surge of spending on Bynum’s behalf from the same political action group that is supporting Dexter. McLeod-Skinner has been the beneficiary of a smaller independent expenditure as well. 

Local races have had their share of outside money, too. District Attorney Mike Schmidt, facing prosecutor Nathan Vasquez in his re-election bid, has received substantial backing from the Working Families Party and has also been attacked by outside spending from reactionary groups like People for Portland. 

This level of outside spending is antithetical to the wishes of Portland voters, who have consistently voiced their opposition to big money in politics when given the chance. 

The city has long used public financing to fund campaigns through its Small Donor Election program, and in 2018, Portland voters passed a measure instituting campaign finance limits by a wide margin. Earlier this year, the state legislature passed a bill limiting campaign contributions on a statewide level. 

But states and municipalities can’t do anything to stop independent expenditures in federal elections, and it remains to be seen whether opposition to interference from outside groups—particularly those groups who are aligned with right-wing causes—will sway voters when it comes time to fill out their ballots. 

John Horvick, senior vice president of DHM Research, argued that voters lack consistency on the question of outside spending—that they care deeply about the issue when it hurts candidates they support, but care less about it when it aids them. 

“Voters will tell us that there is too much money in politics,” Horvick said. “Voters will tell us that they want campaign spending limits. Voters will vote for campaign spending limits. But when you ask people to name all the things they care about on a candidate or an election… how much money was spent just doesn’t come up or so rarely comes up.”

Caleb said he isn’t so sure. 

“Prior to the pandemic, I would say Portland was a place where it kind of hurt you to be seen as the big money candidate,” Caleb said. “I think that people would look at that suspiciously and oftentimes vote against candidates who have the most money in a race or were excessively wealthy.”

But Caleb posited that the pandemic may have upended that paradigm—and Jason Kafoury, an attorney who works on campaign finance reform with Honest Elections Oregon, said anger about the state of the city might be upending longstanding norms around attack ads and dark money.  

“In any other cycle that I could think of, I think it would have a huge backfiring influence with the voters, because it’s way too nasty for Portland,” Kafoury said. “But in this particular cycle, because voters are just so sick and tired of the state of things in Portland, I'm worried that it might be effective.”

Nevertheless, there are reasons to believe the dark money forces in support of Dexter are not fully comfortable with how their intervention may be perceived. One reason is that AIPAC appears to have gone an awfully long way to attempt to hide where the money it is injecting into the race is coming from.  

In early May, The Intercept reported that AIPAC was funneling donor funds through a political action committee called 314 Action Fund, a group ostensibly formed to support Democratic candidates with a science background, to spend in support of Dexter’s candidacy. The fund has declined to disclose its donors, though subsequent reporting from The Intercept has tied a portion of that money to AIPAC donors. 

Dexter issued a statement on May 3 broadly condemning an unmanned “dark money group” for airing attack ads directed at Jayapal, but has not called on 314 Action Fund to disclose its donors before Tuesday’s election, and has claimed she is unsure of where the dark money supporting her candidacy is coming from. Notably, 314 Action Fund has also spent in support of Bynum, though far less than its spending on behalf of Dexter.

“It shows, I think, that AIPAC doesn’t want to be identified with that money—that they would see it as potentially limiting the impact of it,” Caleb said. 

Given the lack of publicly available polling of the District 3 race, it is difficult to ascertain how the deluge of outside spending has changed the trajectory of the campaign—whether advertising voters have received attacking Jayapal has hurt her campaign, or whether it may be having the opposite effect.  

If anything, Horvick said, the outsized spending has hurt not Jayapal, but the third major candidate in the race: Gresham City Councilor Eddy Morales. 

“The space is being filled up by two other people, particularly Dexter, and that leaves him with just less ability to compete for mindshare,” Horvick said of Morales. 

In the bigger picture, however, Horvick suggested that the people most likely to be swayed by the extent and origin of the big spending are not likely undecided voters. 

“It’s an issue to people who have already made up their minds,” Horvick said. “It’s an issue to people who are very highly engaged and probably have strong opinions about the candidates one way or another already.”

Time will tell. AIPAC and DMFI spending has upended Democratic primaries in the past, including a 2022 race that saw Rep. Summer Lee win election to Congress in a Pittsburgh-based district and a 2021 race that saw Rep. Shontel Brown elected in a Cleveland-based district. 

But those districts are politically distinct from the district Blumenauer currently represents, and those campaigns were contested prior to the ethnic cleansing of Gaza that has seen Israel accused of genocide at a top United Nations court. 

Given the extent of the spending, the 3rd District race and races elsewhere may give Portlanders the opportunity to clearly reject the presence of dark money in their elections. If the dark money boosts Dexter to victory, however, Kafoury predicts it will make an impression leading into pivotal local elections in November. 

“I think what you’ll see is the United for Portland, real estate, the big, more conservative Portland money will dump even bigger into the Portland city races,” Kafoury said. “If this works in the primary, then they will do that in the general. Big time.”