Positivity reigns in city races—but for how long?

Ranked Choice Voting is making campaigns friendlier. Could a flood of independent expenditures undercut the trend?

Maja Viklands Harris Avatar
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Imagine competing with twenty-plus people for your dream job. Taking a cheerful group selfie with your rivals and posting it on social media might not be your first instinct. Yet, that’s exactly what many of Portland’s council candidates are doing.

As the campaign season for Portland city seats heats up, social media is abuzz with pictures of candidates posing together at community events and tagging each other with hopeful comments about future collaborations on the council. 

Rose City Reform decided to reach out to four veteran political strategists to understand how the new voting method is changing the campaign landscape. They all said the same thing: most candidates prefer to play nice to boost their chances of receiving high rankings from voters.

The kicker? As political interest groups launch their own campaigns, the political climate could soon get spicier.

From a scarcity mindset to strategic collaboration. 

Kari Chisholm is a partner at the political consulting firm Swift Public Affairs. His campaign experience includes Maine’s 2018 gubernatorial election, the first statewide ranked choice voting election in American history.

“In traditional winner-takes-all elections, the person ideologically closest to you is usually your biggest rival because they can steal your votes, and vice versa,” Chisholm says, “but in a ranked-choice context, your closest ideological neighbor can actually be an ally because you want their voters to pick you as their second choice.” 

Jake Weigler, a partner at Praxis Political, agrees that Portland’s recent reforms have changed the equation for many campaign managers.

“Normally, campaigns operate on a scarcity mentality—there are only so many donors and only so many votes. But with multiple seats per districts, I see more campaigns finding opportunities for partnership and collaboration,” he explains.

Weigler, whose clients include a candidate for Portland City Council, says election reform is not the only reason why campaigns are trying new approaches. Portland’s public campaign financing system, which provides a 1-9 match on contributions up to $20, encourages candidates to seek many small political gifts rather than large checks. Encouraging voters to give modest amounts to multiple candidates with similar values can be a low-risk, high-yield strategy to reach the 250 contributions required to qualify for public financing. 

“My advice to every candidate is that you can swap donors; they can give to you as well as another candidate. With multiple winners, we now have ways to create mutual advantages that are quite rare in campaign life,” Weigler says.

D2 candidate Mike Marshall welcomes fellow candidate Michelle DePass to the race

Alliances emerge between candidates.

Dean Nielsen, founder of the national consulting firm CN4 Partners, has observed a trend toward positive campaigning in other cities that have adopted Ranked Choice Voting. Nielsen, who works with multiple Portland council candidates and a mayoral candidate, believes Portland’s multi-winner system does more than foster civility—it also incentivizes candidates to form strategic alliances.

“Candidates may not be setting up official slates, but unofficial slates are definitely forming,” he notes.

“Candidates know who they prefer to work with. And with multiple winners, is your opponent really a competitor, or a potential colleague?”

Nielsen mentions that the alignment between certain candidates will soon become clearer to voters, as influential interest groups begin to unveil endorsement slates featuring multiple supported candidates per district.

To stay relevant in crowded races, avoid being dull.

With sixty-eight candidates vying for twelve council seats, capturing voters’ attention can be a tall order. Coupled with the fact that nearly all candidates are running on the same issues—homelessness, public safety, addiction, and affordability— distinguishing yourself from the rest requires some creativity.

“My number one rule is, don’t be boring,” says Jake Weigler.

“There are some folks in this race who have that kind of sparkle, and that’s helping them attract interest and stand out in the crowd.”

Instagram has become a go-to platform for candidates’ innovative social media stunts. Examples range from Nat West (D2) gathering candidates for a local cycling race under the banner “Cruising to City Council” to Marnie Glickman (D2) promising a bowl of homemade matzo ball soup to the 250th donor—a nod to the number of small contributions needed to unlock the public match. Angelita Morillo’s (D3) TikTok channel, which boasts over 30,000 followers, has played a significant role in her ability to secure over a thousand small contributions.

Booming Candidate Pool Strains Public Campaign Finance Program

No matter a candidate’s social media prowess, reaching enough voters remains a challenge for most campaigns. Even in district-based races, the cost of a direct mailer ranges between $35,000 and $40,000, according to Dean Nielsen.

These are the types of expenditures many candidates hope will be covered by public campaign financing dollars. The catch? Despite the 2022 reforms that expanded the city council and vacated all city seats, the city’s public campaign financing program has received no additional funding. With fourteen city seats up for election in 2024—up from the usual three—the Portland Election Commission has slashed the match cap for each council candidate to $120,000, a 60% drop, and from $750,000 to $100,000 for mayoral candidates, a staggering near-90% reduction. Mayor Wheeler’s proposed budget includes no extra funding for the program, and although the council has the power to boost its funding, such a move appears politically challenging in an election cycle where all council members except Wheeler himself are currently participating in the program.

So, how far does $100,000 go in the race for Portland mayor? Not very far, says Dean Nielsen. In a noisy presidential election year, with television ad prices skyrocketing and inflation driving up the cost of everything from printing to postage, Nielsen estimates that mayoral candidates will need around a million dollars to run a successful campaign.

“No one is going to have that kind of money. And that essentially hands the race over to independent expenditures,” he says.

“Independent expenditures could become kingmakers.”

Independent expenditures are funds spent by political interest groups to influence the outcomes of elections. Unlike city candidates, who may only receive contributions up to $350, political action committees (PACs) may raise and spend unlimited funds. By law, they’re not allowed to coordinate with candidate’s campaigns, which means candidates have little influence over the messaging. 

“The whole point of public campaign financing was to keep campaign money transparent, but the underfunding of the public campaign financing system has the opposite effect,” says Paige Richardson, president of the political consulting firm Springwater Partners. 

Richardson believes public dollars can still help level the playing field for council races, but says the cuts for mayoral candidates will make PAC money more important than ever.

“A hundred thousand dollars is definitely not enough for a mayoral race. It practically forces candidates to rely on independent expenditures to get elected,” says Richardson, who’s currently working for a mayoral candidate and multiple candidates for city council.

So how eager are PACs to get involved in Portland races? Very, says Jake Weigler. 

“There are many stakeholders who care about the outcome of these elections and they’re not going to tie their hands behind their backs. I think we’re headed towards a scenario where independent expenditures could become kingmakers in these races,” he says.

With less to lose, PACs are more likely to attack.

Campaigns run by PACs are often more willing to go negative than candidates themselves. Many readers are likely familiar with the “Portland is a Schmidt Show” billboards paid for by the PAC ‘People for Portland’, attacking Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt.

A more recent initiative is a direct mail campaign against Shannon Singleton, a progressive candidate running for Multnomah County Commission, paid for by the business-friendly interest group ‘United for Portland’. 

“Independent expenditures campaigns tend to be a lot nastier,” says Dean Nielsen.

“I’ve done many of them, and they’re about one thing—winning. In an ideal world, candidates would control their own message, and deal with the consequences when they go too far,” he adds.

When in doubt, run as yourself.

All four strategist agree that even against the backdrop of Portland’s sweeping reforms, most of the old campaign rulebook still applies.

“Even though we’ve made significant changes, the anatomy of candidate campaigns hasn’t changed much,” says Paige Richardson.

“You still have to run as yourself and advocate for yourself to be voters’ first choice.”

Kari Chisholm concurs. While political interest groups may endorse multiple candidates per district, a candidate’s job is to fight for that first ranking, he says.

“Voters will be looking for a ‘unicorn’ candidate who fits all their criteria, and if they don’t find them, they’ll look for someone who fits at least some criteria and try to fill in the gaps with their other choices,” he predicts.

Jake Weigler notes that while the 2024 city election cycle is unlikely to be lucrative for political consultants given candidates’ shoestring budgets, it promises to be the most memorable. 

“We’re all going to go through this grand experiment, and it’s fascinating to be part of these history-making campaigns—despite the messiness it all entails,” he concludes. 

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