SALEM — Former lawmaker Tim Knopp has attacked the record of his opponent, Sen. Chris Telfer, in the state’s upper chamber, but that didn’t stop him from contributing $7,000 over the years to her efforts.
Knopp has a reputation for being a fundraising powerhouse. His own personal political action committee, with the goal of unseating Telfer this May, has raised more than $100,000 since the start of last month. Telfer, by comparison, has raised about $33,400. But two of Knopp’s political action committees, or PACs, have long wielded influence in state and local politics.
When Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, and Rep. Jason Conger, R-Bend, both announced they were endorsing Knopp, each cited the fact that Knopp helped them in their election efforts. And those two PACs have also infused Telfer’s campaign with contributions.
Knopp pointed out that he was not the sole decision maker when it came to campaign contributions, and most checks are cut for candidates who abide by certain principles.
Campaign records show that over the years, notable politicians across the state and locally, including Tony DeBone and Tammy Baney, have also benefited from Knopp’s fundraising.
Now that he’s running for office again, Knopp said, he’s distanced himself from the two PACs, called the Reagan PAC and Central Oregonianns for Affordable Housing PAC, and focused efforts on the PAC aimed solely at electing him state senator.
Knopp founded the Reagan PAC in 2010. The goal, he said, was to unite people around President Ronald Reagan’s principles of “limited government and expanded freedom.”
After watching small businesses come “under attack in 2009,” he started the PAC to help more Republicans get elected. Since then, the PAC has contributed about $200,000 to a slew of candidates.
It contributed more than $16,000 to Conger. It gave more than $1,000 to both Reps. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, and McLane, and since its creation more than $3,000 to Telfer. Knopp credits his fundraising success to simply being willing to ask for donations.
“You have to talk to a lot of people, and I think my success has come down to calling people and talking to them face to face,” he said.
It’s also easier to ask for donations for a PAC than for a specific candidate, he said. With both the Reagan PAC and the Central Oregonians for Affordable Housing PAC, it’s easier to raise money for a “cause” than it is for his personal PAC, geared toward the sole purpose of getting him elected. The Central Oregonians for Affordable Housing PAC has similar goals of the Reagan PAC and is affiliated with the Central Oregon Builders Association, where Knopp is the executive vice president.
The Central Oregonians for Affordable Housing PAC has contributed about $75,000 to candidates since 2010.
Since then, it’s doled out $8,000 to Whisnant, $5,000 to McLane, $3,700 to Telfer and $1,000 to Conger.
Knopp said that since he’s decided to run for election, he’s distanced himself from the two PACs and is no longer the one who signs the checks.
That duty falls to his longtime friend and colleague at COBA, Andy High.
Knopp discredits the idea that by maintaining the PACs he’s kept his hand in the political game, all but ensuring support if he were to run again. “I really didn’t make a decision until late February of this year to run and had to file on the deadline of March 6,” he said.
He said that when people asked months before if he had plans to run for office, he would have answered no.
“That’s how quickly things change in the political process,” he said.
Political action committees have long been part of the machine. But it’s much more common now for people to raise money in an effort to help members in their party get elected, rather than simply raising it to get yourself elected, said Oregon State University political science professor and political analyst Bill Lunch.
The power to raise funds quickly also helps a member “gain influence within their caucus,” and that’s increased over the years, Lunch said.
The other big change was the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case that ruled corporations and unions are persons under the Constitution and can therefore contribute any amount to political campaigns. But in Oregon politics, it’s long been the case that there are no limits on campaign contributions or expenditures, as in other states.
Lunch said the evidence is thin that campaign contributions equal political sway when it comes to casting votes on legislation.
“Lots of people have a suspicion that under the table, there must be a quid pro quo for large contributions,” he said. “It’s not unreasonable to think that because it does happen, but most of the time it’s not the case. (But) it’s exceedingly difficult ... to know.”