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Nike Legend Phil Knight Buys Controlling Stake in Oregon GOP
$14 million in contributions mostly to right-wing committees & candidates since 2007
There’s no shortage of ink spilled about how octogenarian Oregon billionaire & Nike founder Phil Knight spends his fortune to advance philanthropic interests.
But there’s one entity Knight has effectively purchased a controlling stake in with a $2 million donation that more or less sealed the deal in early April 2023…
The Oregon Republican Party.
How does a business titan buy an entire political party? Flood the right-wing campaign finance ecosystem with enormous, multi-million dollar checks. It’s really not any more complicated than that.
In the spirit of that simplicity, let’s say there are two basic ways a billionaire can ascend to political sugar daddy status:
Splash individual candidates (or ballot measure campaigns) with big checks so they can drown their competition.
Inject huge sums of money into party infrastructure or Political Action Committees that direct funds across a broader set of candidate campaigns.
Knight began his ascent to Oregon GOP Sugar Daddy by using the #1 approach. But he recently established himself as the single largest stakeholder in the state’s right-wing machine by using the #2 approach.
Salem-Keizer Proletariat hasn’t accepted $14 million from Phil Knight - in large part, because it was never offered. But SKP is entirely reader-supported local journalism. To receive new posts and support this work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Campaign finance data shows Knight really hit the gas on GOP support in 2022
We looked at the 2022 race for Governor in Oregon to see who comprised the top financial supporters of the unsuccessful GOP candidate, Christine Drazan. Sort of a modern day who’s who of big money in Oregon GOP politics.
When you weed out the national entities that were looking to influence outcomes in Oregon - Republican Governors Association, for example, flooded Drazan’s campaign with more than $7 million in 2022 alone - you see which arms of the Oregon GOP campaign finance apparatus are most influential.
For purposes of making the most apt comparison, we selected the following groups to explore:
Bring Balance to Salem PAC - Recently created in 2021, this is the PAC where Knight spent his most recent millions to elect Republicans to state office. The group’s cumulative reported spending on Oregon elections through June 2023 is just shy of $5 million.
Evergreen Oregon PAC - Created in 2019, this group is focused on supporting “Republican candidates for the Oregon state legislature” and is controlled by Oregon Republican lawmakers Vikki Iverson & Shelly Boshart Davis. The group’s cumulative reported spending on Oregon elections through June 2023 is a bit more than $6 million.
Oregon Republican Party - The oldest PAC we looked at, with Oregon campaign finance records dating back to 1987. Unsurprisingly, this party-based political action committee was formed “to support Republican ideals for self-governance and a party platform that furthers financially prudent policies, sound ideologies, and Republican candidates.” The party’s cumulative reported spending on Oregon elections through June 2023 is right around $5.4 million.
This trio represents three of the largest and most consistent supporters of Republican candidates across Oregon. And in the past 15 years (give or take a year) they have collectively spent just north of $16 million to influence elections throughout Oregon.
Individually, you’d say they represent some of the key stakeholders in the modern Oregon GOP - a dwindling political machine marching furiously from one culture war to the next.
So…what does that make Phil Knight who, by himself, has spent $14 million to do the same?
PACs and parties influence election outcomes by virtue of their expenditures. Knight’s influence comes from his contributions. And nearly all of his contributions - especially the last few years - have been exclusively to Republican or right-leaning candidates.
Using a similar analysis and presentation as the PACs above, look how dramatically Knight’s billionaire bank account has benefited the right-wing machine in Oregon.
Considering the size and scope of Knight’s 57 reported contributions since late 2007, if this were the business world where Knight made his fortune - you’d say he’s moved squarely into the role of primary stakeholder of the modern Oregon GOP.
Admittedly, there were a few contributions over the earlier years to Democrat candidates (and they are included in this data set), but they are miniscule compared to Knight’s overwhelming support for right-wing candidates and ballot measures.
In fact, the only contribution that comes close to his normal level of support for right-wing folks is a 2017 contribution to the Kitzhaber for Governor campaign, a Democrat effort, for a relatively paltry $250k.
You can see from the graph that 2018 marked a dramatic increase in support from Knight, and another insane boost in 2022 nearly tripled his cumulative contribution levels in the span of about a year and change. The biggest winners in Knight’s right-wing splurge of support?
Bring Balance to Salem PAC is almost entirely funded by Knight’s $4 million in contributions. Most recently, Knight doubled support for his fav PAC and kicked them a check for $2 million to recharge their coffers for a busy 2024.
Failed spoiler candidate Betsy Johnson attracted $3,750,000 of Knight’s financial support.
Failed Republican candidate for Oregon Governor in 2018, Knute Buehler, cashed a pair of million dollar checks from Knight - pulling in $2.5 million total from Knight in that election cycle.
After it became clear Betsy Johnson wasn’t even popular enough to spoil the Governor’s race (much less win it), Knight cut a pair of checks for 2022 Republican Christine Drazan (for a tidy $1.5 million).
Knight’s fat checks funding increasingly extreme & intellectually sclerotic political movement
Comparisons between Knight’s political investments and the culturally progressive sneaker company he’s famous for founding have been thoroughly examined. So we can skip the jarring differences between the various and sundry ideologies Knight supports with his money contrasted with the legendary brand he helped build.
But even if you give Knight the benefit of the doubt - that his contributions really are aimed at fostering a more balanced political arena in Oregon - he’s increasing his stake in the Oregon GOP at a time when they abandoned their own jobs and refused to participate in the legislative process.
Oregon Senate Republicans walked out on their constituents and their colleagues on May 3, 2023. Almost exactly 1 month prior, Knight cut a $2 million check to Bring Balance to Salem PAC - literally doubling down on previous contributions. In fact, Knight’s contributions comprise the clear majority of money raised by this PAC - his $4 million is about 55% of all the money this PAC has ever raised.
And they used Knight’s money to fund candidates that participated in this temper-tantrum vibed walkout, including the “brains” behind the eventually abandoned walkout, Tim Knopp, GOP Senate Minority Leader, who scooped up $25k from Knight’s favorite right-wing PAC in 2022.
Knight, it seems, under the guise of purchasing enough influence to garner a “new balance” in Salem, has instead empowered a minority party that seems to be primarily interested in frustrating the will of the majority in Oregon.
How long will the 85 year-old sneaker giant worth a reported $42 billion (the 25th richest in the world, according to Forbes) remain as the Oregon GOP sugar daddy?
If his millions donated to the Oregon GOP in 2023 - an off year for major political contests - is any indication, Knight will continue to keep the right-wing afloat in Oregon through the much busier, 2024 election cycle.
Let’s hope his history of picking political losers holds true.
Salem-Keizer Proletariat is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.