Nike President and CEO Phil Knight addresses a shareholders meeting in Portland, Ore., Sept. 22, 1997.

Nike co-founder Phil Knight, seen in this file photo from 1997, has donated $1 million to Oregon gubernatorial candidate Betsy Johnson.

John Gress

Nike co-founder Phil Knight is once again picking favorites in Oregon politics, this time in the highly competitive 2022 race for governor – and putting up major money to back up his choice.

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On Friday, records show Knight contributed $750,000 to the campaign of former Democratic state Sen. Betsy Johnson, who has left the party to run as an unaffiliated candidate. Combined with a previous $250,000 donation, Knight has now given $1 million to Johnson’s attempt to become the first governor not associated with a political party in nearly a century.

The checks, coming seven months before Johnson would actually stand for election, signal that Knight is once again hoping to play a strong role in helping his chosen candidate reach Oregon voters. That’s particularly a necessity for Johnson, who won’t be able to appeal to voters purely based on the political party next to her name.

While Knight has given to plenty of candidates and causes in Oregon over the years, his financial support has typically been far lower than what he’s offered Johnson.

In 2010, Knight favored former Portland Trail Blazer Chris Dudley, a Republican, who lost the gubernatorial race by a razor-thin margin to Democrat John Kitzhaber. Knight gave Dudley $400,000 in that contest and, four years later, backed Kitzhaber’s re-election bid with a check for $250,000.

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Knight dialed his political giving way up in 2018, when he contributed $2.5 million to the campaign of then-Republican state Rep. Knute Buehler, who was challenging Gov. Kate Brown. The heavy donations spurred accusations that Knight was attempting to buy a Republican the governor’s mansion, but were not ultimately enough to help Buehler beat the vulnerable Brown. Knight’s donations comprised 13% of Buehler’s fundraising in the race.

State Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, in the Oregon Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, in Salem, Ore.

A 2019 file photo of Betsy Johnson during her time serving as an Oregon state senator in the Capitol in Salem.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

“It’s not surprising that [Knight] would connect with Knute,” Dudley told OPB in 2018. “Similar to myself, Knute is moderate, and he lines up with where Phil is on a lot of stuff: He’s pro-choice, he’s pro-free trade, he’s pro-business, he’s in favor of pension reform to fix the funding of schools.”

In Johnson, Knight may have found a candidate with politics that are similar to Buehler’s. Both are pro-choice politicians, but also say they represent a commitment to strict fiscal discipline and a chance to snatch the state back from the control of progressive Democrats.

Attempts to reach Knight about his recent political giving through a Nike spokesperson were not responded to. In a statement Monday, Johnson touted Knight’s support.

“Without the money and machinery from the two party system, I need all the help I can get to rescue Oregon,” the statement said. “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.”

Since she’s running as an unaffiliated candidate, Johnson does not need to seek a major party nomination in the May 17 primary. Instead, she’s taking a less common route to the November ballot: working to collect roughly 23,750 valid signatures from Oregon voters, an amount equal to 1% of the statewide vote in the 2020 general election.

That will require major money, which Johnson has. So far, the former senator has raised far more than any other gubernatorial candidate. As of Monday, she’d reported having more than $5.1 million on hand.

Knight’s contributions amount to 17% of her total raised so far.

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