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The Knight Stuff: What Phil Knight's Enormous Donations Mean In Oregon Governor's Race


Other gubernatorial campaigns have gotten big donations from Knight in the past. But not this big. Here's what they make of this year's record-shattering contributions. 

Armed with a plan to become Oregon’s first Republican governor in more than two decades in 2010, Chris Dudley turned to Nike co-founder Phil Knight for money.

Four years later, then-Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, made a similar pitch to the state’s best-known billionaire.

RELATED: Live Oregon and Washington 2018 midterm election results.

In each case, Knight came through with what at the time were head-turning contributions. They look minuscule by the standards he’s setting these days.

Since August 2017, Knight has donated a total of $2.5 million to state Rep. Knute Buehler, the Republican who is mounting a competitive challenge to the re-election bid of Democratic Gov. Kate Brown. Knight has given another $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, which has spent more than $2 million supporting Buehler.

The contributions are an interesting development for a candidate who got his start in politics working on campaign finance reform. They could also usher Oregon into a new political paradigm: Never before has a single wealthy individual given so heavily to a candidate in the state.

Knight’s money is a big part of the reason this year’s gubernatorial race is the most expensive in state history. It has been seized on by campaign finance watchdogs, who’ve long warned Oregon’s permissive election laws permit wealthy interests to have too great a say in political outcomes.

And it’s opened a new line of attack in a race where candidates have rarely passed up an opportunity to go negative.

“What causes concern is Knute Buehler is trying to pound a ‘for sale’ sign in front of the Oregon Capitol,” Christian Gaston, a spokesman for the Brown campaign, told the Salem Reporter. “If he wins, is he going to install a red phone that goes straight to Phil Knight?”

“Best government money can BUY?” tweeted Patrick Starnes, the Independent Party of Oregon’s candidate for governor.

The contributions also garnered national headlines, with Rolling Stone recently asking: “Is billionaire Nike founder Phil Knight trying to buy a Republican governor?”

Republican gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler arrives for his third and final debate with Gov. Kate Brown. 

Republican gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler arrives for his third and final debate with Gov. Kate Brown. 

Dirk VanderHart/OPB

Any speculation that Buehler has promised something to Knight will apparently remain just that. Through a Nike spokesman, the highly private billionaire declined requests for an interview, and Buehler’s campaign has refused to answer questions about the campaign’s ties to Knight.

But Knight has offered a recent glimpse into places he and Buehler agree. In a 2017 interview with Portland political consultant Jim Pasero — first noted by Willamette Week — he said that Oregon’s troublesome public pension system could “sink the whole state” and bemoaned current political leadership — two positions that align with Buehler’s relentlessly consistent campaign message.

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There’s another place to look for context into Knight’s contributions: Those who’ve benefited from his largesse in the past.

Kitzhaber declined to discuss his relationship with the billionaire, but his 2014 campaign manager, Mike Marshall, says the candidate’s request for support was common sense.

“We didn’t want Dennis Richardson to call and ask for money and to not have asked ourselves,” Marshall told OPB, referencing Kitzhaber’s GOP opponent that year.

Just four years earlier, Kitzhaber’s phone call with Knight would have seemed unlikely. Knight had played a role in Kitzhaber’s near-defeat at the hands of Republican Chris Dudley in 2010, donating heavily to the GOP candidate.

But things had changed. In 2012, for instance, Kitzhaber called the Legislature into session specifically to pass a law that ensured Nike’s income tax calculation in Oregon wouldn’t meaningfully change for three decades. According to Marshall, Kitzhaber had “a lot of interaction” with Knight by the time he got on the phone with the candidate in 2014 to ask for money.

“This was a matter of the relationship they’d built over the last four years,” Marshall said.

Marshall and Kitzhaber mulled over what to ask of Knight, taking into account other large donors to Kitzhaber’s campaign.

“There was a feeling that the labor unions had committed significant money [to Kitzhaber’s campaign] and it should be aligned with that, and no more than that,” Marshall said. “So the governor asked for $250,000, which I don’t believe he’d done before.”

The resulting check was the largest single contribution Knight had ever made to a candidate. He could have given far more — Oregon is one of a handful of states with no limits on campaign contributions — but Marshall argued that $250,000 was within the bounds of a “social compact” he thinks exists in Oregon.

“I was comfortable with it, because the labor unions were coming in at the same level or even more,” said Marshall, who is supporting Brown in this year’s election. “The notion of $2.5 million is just outrageous. It’s just Phil Knight trying to tip the process in favor of his candidate.”

Former Oregon Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Dudley, center, on Election Night in 2010. In an aim to become the state's first GOP governor in two decades, Dudley turned to Phil Knight for money.

Former Oregon Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Dudley, center, on Election Night in 2010. In an aim to become the state’s first GOP governor in two decades, Dudley turned to Phil Knight for money.

Greg Wahl-Stephens/AP

Like Kitzhaber, Dudley had an existing relationship with Knight by the time he asked for the billionaire’s financial backing in 2010 — he’d met the sportswear magnate during his two stints playing for the Portland Trail Blazers.

Dudley can’t remember whether he spoke to Knight once or twice during the campaign, but he says the discussion involved laying out his strategy for becoming the first Republican to win the governor’s office since 1982.

“We talked about the issues,” Dudley said. “When I ran, that was most focused on education … and then the economy and what was going on with Oregon and Oregon struggling at that time.”

Knight ultimately made four contributions totaling $400,000. Dudley wound up outspending Kitzhaber by around $3 million, and losing by 1.5 percentage points.

“Questions would come up: ‘If you’d won, would you feel any obligation to someone who supported your campaign?’” Dudley said. “Absolutely not. All Phil wanted was what’s best for Oregon.”

He sees the same situation with Buehler.

“It’s not surprising that [Knight] would connect with Knute,” said Dudley, who resides mostly in California these days but supports Buehler. “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.”

Some candidates who’ve reaped Knight’s support say they haven’t even spoken with the billionaire. Former Republican state Rep. Mark Johnson got $97,500 from Knight over the course of three campaigns. That’s more than any of the other 30 or so state legislative candidates — a mix of Democrats and Republicans — to whom Knight has contributed over the years.

“I didn’t have any direct contact with Phil at all,” said Johnson, who recently served as the head of Oregon Business and Industry and is now a lobbyist for the Port of Cascade Locks. “There would be people who would reach out on his behalf, who would just say, ‘Phil would like to support your campaign.’”

Johnson, who supports Buehler, said Knight “has a keen interest in what kind of outcome elections bring in Oregon. I guess the question is: What is it about Kate Brown that so concerns Phil Knight that he would get involved to this level?”

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Knight’s support for Buehler has come in the form of three direct contributions: One for $500,000 in August 2017, not long after Buehler announced his candidacy; one for $1 million almost exactly a year later; and most recently another $1 million contribution on Oct. 10.

The Republican Governors Association has also reported a $1 million contribution from Knight, even as it has contributed nearly $2 million directly to Buehler’s campaign.

Brown and her allies have claimed that all of the money the RGA has given to Buehler comes from Knight. In a recent interview on MSNBC, the governor told Rev. Al Sharpton: “One billionaire donor has invested over $4.5 million in my Republican opponent’s campaign.”

There is no documented evidence of that. Even if all of the money Knight has given to the RGA is redirected to Buehler, records to-date only show he’s given the group $1 million. An RGA spokesman told OPB on Oct. 25 that’s the total Knight has donated this year.

Brown and Buehler are relatively well matched in what has become a record shattering race. As of Oct. 24, Buehler had raised more than $14.9 million in 2017 and 2018. Brown collected more than $13.8 million in the same period.

But Knight also appears to have single-handedly counteracted what is a central pillar of support for high-profile Democrats: money from labor unions. An analysis of campaign finance records suggests Brown has raised roughly $2 million from labor groups since 2017.

Knight’s millions also cast an enormous shadow over contributions from the company he co-founded. Nike has donated $85,000 to Brown.

In the grand scheme of Knight’s gifts to various institutions, several million dollars is almost a rounding error. The billionaire has lavished more than $2 billion on philanthropic causes, including hundreds of millions for cancer research at Oregon Health and Science University, and more than $500 million to Stanford University, where he once studied.

Knight’s generous offerings to the University of Oregon — particularly its athletic facilities — have earned him a nickname among its students and alumni. They call him “Uncle Phil.”

Phil Knight at a University of Oregon basketball game in 2014. For his large donations, students affectionately refer to Knight as "Uncle Phil."

Phil Knight at a University of Oregon basketball game in 2014. For his large donations, students affectionately refer to Knight as “Uncle Phil.”

Chris Pietsch/AP

Even so, Dan Meek, an attorney and advocate for campaign finance reform, believes Knight’s involvement in this year’s governor’s race has relevance nationally. Meek says data from the National Institute on Money in Politics suggest the support is among the largest-ever contributions from one person to a candidate in one election — excluding self-funding by wealthy candidates or their relatives.

He says massive contributions like this were a foregone conclusion in Oregon, given the state’s loose campaign finance rules.

“Having someone contribute effectively $3.5 million, it’s an order of magnitude bigger than any previous contribution” in Oregon, Meek said. “It’s a new day in that sense. But it’s totally expected. It’s totally predictable.”

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Buehler and Brown both have a long history of pushing campaign finance reform — and also trading jabs on the issue.

Buehler first dabbled in politics in 1992, helping with Ross Perot’s presidential campaign. Two years later, he championed a ballot measure that limited political donations in the state. It passed, but was ruled unconstitutional by the Oregon Supreme Court.

When Brown and Buehler ran against each other for secretary of state in 2012, Brown volunteered to limit her total spending to $1 million in the race. Buehler, a orthopedic surgeon who’d never held office, was already building a lofty war chest. And though he supported the idea of reform, he suggested Brown was proposing the limits only because she was struggling to raise money.

In 2015, Brown supported an unsuccessful effort to put strict limits on campaigns. She wanted to see a cap of $2,600 for individual donors and $5,000 for political action committees. Voters would need to amend the state’s constitution to allow the state to move forward with changing the campaign contribution rules.

Buehler backed the idea of amending the constitution, but questioned those strict limits.

Supporters of Gov. Kate Brown demonstrate in Portland outside of the third and final gubernatorial debate of the 2018 campaign.

Supporters of Gov. Kate Brown demonstrate in Portland outside of the third and final gubernatorial debate of the 2018 campaign.

Dirk VanderHart/OPB

If she’s re-elected this year, Brown’s campaign says, the governor will continue to push for campaign finance limits.

“I think every Oregonian would agree we’re spending too much money on campaigns,” said Gaston, with Brown’s campaign. “The challenge in Oregon is the courts have struck down reasonable limits. The governor supports changing that and preventing wealthy individuals like Phil Knight from buying the governor’s agenda.”

Gaston dismisses the idea that large checks Brown’s received from unions and advocacy groups are on par with donations from Knight. Both Everytown for Gun Safety and Emily’s List have contributed $500,000 to Brown’s campaign. A committee affiliated with the Service Employees International Union Local 503, the state’s largest public-employee union, has given more than $420,000.

Donations from those groups come from “thousands of individual contributors that support the values she’s championed,” Gaston said.

Buehler’s campaign says he continues to support limiting campaign spending. But the candidate told OPB this year that, while he stands behind the notions of reform that got him interested in politics in the first place, some of them are no longer realistic in light of more recent court decisions.

“What I had supported in the past — strict campaign donation and spending limits — just is not possible. It’s not functional in the post-Citizens United world,” Buehler said, referring to a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision. “This campaign, we play by the rules as they exist. Not by the rules as I’d like them to be.”

OPB reporter Lauren Dake contributed to this report.

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