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Phil Knight spends big to help Oregon Republicans regain power in state Legislature

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Matt York
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AP
FILE - Nike chairman Phil Knight stands on the sideline prior to an NCAA college football game between Oregon and Arizona State in November 2019, in Tempe, Ariz. Oregon’s richest man has so far reported spending $2 million on electing Republicans to the Oregon House and Senate this fall.

The Nike co-founder has given to legislative races in the past, but never to this degree. So far records show he’s spent $2 million on the effort.

Nike co-founder Phil Knight has long kept a pinky toe dipped in Oregon’s legislative politics. This year, he’s yelling “Cannonball!”

With Election Day a little more than a month away, Oregon’s richest man has so far reported spending $2 million on electing Republicans to the state House and Senate — far more interest than Knight has ever shown, and more than double his combined giving to legislative races since 2010.

The money could be pivotal in a year when state Republicans believe they can ride voter disaffection to gains in both legislative chambers. GOP strategists think they have a chance to flip three or more seats in the state Senate — either evenly splitting with Democrats or winning a bare 16-14 majority in the chamber. The party is counting on eating into a 37-23 Democratic advantage in the House, which could eliminate the three-fifths supermajority that allows Democrats to pass any bill through the chamber on their own.

“I think we have the right strategy, I think we have the funding we’re gonna need,” said Bryan Iverson, a consultant who is helping run races for House and Senate Republicans this year. “Everyone talks about the red wave. We believe it’s real, and it’s here. We’re seeing it.”

Part of Iverson’s optimism comes from another prominent Oregonian who’s wading into GOP legislative races: former U.S. Rep. Greg Walden.

Since retiring from Congress in 2020 after more than 20 years, Walden has launched a strategic advisory firm in Washington, D.C. But he’s also bringing his decades of connections and political experience to bear in Oregon with a new political action committee, Bring Balance to Salem PAC, formed for the purpose of electing Republicans to the Legislature. Knight has now given that PAC $2 million, split between two checks in April and August.

Attempts to reach Knight about his political giving this year — which also includes another $1.75 million he’s given unaffiliated Oregon gubernatorial candidate Betsy Johnson — have been unsuccessful. Walden has also not responded to repeated inquiries about the PAC he’s helped form.

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Bradley W. Parks
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OPB
Former U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, is behind a new committee spending big to help legislative Republicans this year.

Iverson said Walden has been instrumental in helping Republicans this year, meeting with candidates and helping form a cohesive strategy.

“People like Phil Knight trust him,” Iverson said. “They trust Greg and his vision, and I trust Greg and his vision… Beyond money, that knowledge is so great to have.”

Of course, the money also helps. Bring Balance to Salem has reported raising more than $4.3 million since forming in November, and has spent more than $1 million. The PAC has been rumored in Democratic circles as being prepared to spend up to $15 million this year. No such largesse has yet emerged, but the committee’s contributions make a difference in a year when national Republicans have also shown notable interest in Oregon.

So far, Bring Balance to Salem’s largest contributions have been to committees run by House and Senate Republicans. It has given $550,000 to The Leadership Fund, the committee run by the Senate GOP caucus. That amounts to roughly a third of all the money the Leadership Fund has raised this election cycle. Evergreen Oregon PAC, the committee of House Republicans, received $290,000 The caucus PACs spend money coordinating polling and communications for targeted races, along with doling out money to Republican candidates’ campaigns.

Bring Balance to Salem has also sent checks directly to candidates in some of the most highly anticipated legislative contests this year. Randy Sparacino, the Republican mayor of Medford, has received more than $30,000 in his bid to unseat state Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland. State Sen. Bill Kennemer, R-Canby, and state Rep. Suzanne Weber, R-Tillamook, have both seen donations of $10,000 as they look to fend off Democratic opponents in potentially tight races.

The fact that $2 million of the Republican war chest is coming from Knight suggests a shift in perspective for the billionaire, who has reserved most of his big giving in the past to statewide races.

Despite his recent reputation as a Republican megadonor, Knight could once be counted on to bestow modest checks on Republicans and Democrats alike. In 2012, he spent $20,000 helping progressive Jennifer Williamson win a Portland state House seat, more than he kicked into nearly any other legislative race that year.

But as Democrats increased their dominance in Oregon in recent years, the billionaire’s giving pattern has changed. After supporting Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber to the tune of $250,000 in 2014, Knight stopped giving to the party’s candidates.

He spent $2.5 million in 2018 helping Republican Knute Buehler’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid. This year, he’s supporting Johnson, a former longtime Democratic state senator who left the party last year, and has bemoaned Oregon’s leftward slide every chance she gets.

Knight’s $1.75 million has helped Johnson outraise her rivals, Democrat Tina Kotek and Republican Christine Drazan. It hasn’t necessarily brought her to the precipice of the governor’s office. Recent polling suggests the unaffiliated candidate is trailing the major party nominees by a notable margin.

“Without the money and machinery from the two party system, I need all the help I can get to rescue Oregon,” Johnson said in April of Knight’s donations. “Phil Knight deeply loves Oregon and is willing to put his money where his heart is like so many others helping our campaign. I am proud to have him in my corner.”

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration between public radio stations around the Northwest called the Northwest News Network.