Oregon’s Wealthiest Man Has Caused Tina Kotek to Take Contribution Limits Seriously—or at Least Claim She Does

Phil Knight’s million-dollar checks have roiled the governor’s race and led to speculation about his choices.

Tina Kotek, the Democratic nominee locked in a dead heat in the Oregon governor’s race, took time out from campaigning Oct. 10 to hold a “roundtable on campaign finance reform.” The event was occasioned by Nike co-founder Phil Knight writing Kotek’s Republican opponent, Christine Drazan, a check for $1 million on Oct. 6.

“Oregon is in danger of flipping red due to the influx of large donations from billionaires and corporate special interests looking to influence the election,” Kotek’s campaign wrote in an email publicizing the roundtable.

There’s some irony in Kotek’s newfound interest in limiting campaign contributions.

First, despite Knight’s check, Kotek led Drazan as of Oct. 10 in total fundraising: $16 million to $14.5 million.

Second, as the longest-serving House speaker in Oregon history (nine years, ending in January 2022), Kotek demonstrated a steely efficiency at passing difficult bills—except ones that would limit campaign contributions.

Democrats have professed interest in such limits for years, certainly since they took control of the Oregon Legislature in 2007. Yet, to cite just one example, the good-government watchdog group Common Cause took the unusual step in 2019 of launching a petition to put pressure on Kotek.

“The Oregon Legislature is SO close to passing real campaign finance reform—but with the session winding down to a close, House Speaker Tina Kotek refuses to move the bill,” the petition read, late in the 2019 session.

That bill, Senate Joint Resolution 18, passed on the final day of session and became Ballot Measure 107. (A companion bill that would have imposed contribution limits passed the House but died without a vote in the Senate.) Measure 107, which amended the Oregon Constitution to allow campaign contribution and spending limits, passed in 2020 with more than 78% of the vote. But since then, the Legislature has failed to pass any bills enacting the contribution limits the constitution now allows.

Oregon remains one of just five states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, that have no statewide contribution limits.

That has meant ever-escalating spending: In 2010, candidates for governor spent a combined $20 million; by 2018, that number had doubled. This year, Kotek, Drazan and the unaffiliated candidate, former state Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose), have already raised more than $45 million, with nearly a month to go until Election Day.

Not all of that money has come from billionaires like Knight. Kotek has outraised her two opponents thanks to the largesse of organized labor, whose giving isn’t subject to limits either—and has poured $3 million into her campaign.

Unions have been leery of restrictions on their ability to make contributions, which has stalled progress on limits.

Kotek, who has built her career on strong relationships with unions, has never shown much enthusiasm for curbing their power. Kotek’s campaign spokeswoman, Katie Wertheimer, says if Kotek wins, however, she’ll push for limits.

“She has elevated this issue in her campaign because it’s a priority that she will bring forward as governor,” Wertheimer says. “In the meantime, the laws are what they are, and Tina is building a campaign to win.”

But Patrick Starnes, a cabinetmaker from Brownsville, Ore., who has twice run for governor on a one-issue platform—campaign finance reform—says Kotek may finally have come to understand the importance of limits.

“Protecting your caucus as speaker in a safe Portland district is way different than running for statewide office in all 36 counties,” Starnes tells WW. “The former speaker didn’t plan on Phil Knight financing a signature-gathering spoiler,” referring to Johnson, whom Knight bankrolled earlier in the race.

Knight, 84, is clearly living rent-free in Democrats’ minds.

Once a supporter of Democratic candidates for governor—he backed former Govs. Neil Goldschmidt, John Kitzhaber and Ted Kulongoski—Knight dabbled with GOP nominee Chris Dudley in 2010 ($400,000) and went big for Republican Knute Buehler in 2018 ($2.5 million).

In the current cycle, Knight has given $2 million to GOP legislative PACs, $3.75 million to Johnson, and now $1 million to Drazan.

Knight’s abrupt shift from Johnson to Drazan followed polling showing Johnson had almost no chance for victory. But it still sparked accusations that Knight never really supported Johnson and gave her money only to strip malleable voters away from Kotek.

On Oct. 5, Melissa Unger, executive director of the state’s largest labor organization, Service Employees International Union 503, voiced that theory on Twitter in a post that quickly gained traction.

“Why would Phil Knight give $2 million to a candidate that can’t get over 20% in the polls and is not going to win?” Unger tweeted after Johnson disclosed that contribution on Oct. 3. “It is easy, he is working to make Republican Leader Christine Drazan governor.”

Then on Oct. 6, when Knight gave Drazan $1 million, Unger pounced: “This proves my point, Phil Knight wants Christine Drazan to be governor and he will give to her and Betsy Johnson to make it possible.”

But people familiar with Knight dispute the theory that he was playing games when he initially threw his support behind Johnson.

“They are thinking in petty political terms, and he doesn’t think that way,” says GOP political consultant Jim Pasero, who interviewed Knight for his newsletter in 2017, a rare instance in which Knight publicly discussed politics.

Pasero and others say Knight has relied on Buehler, the former orthopedic surgeon who lost to Gov. Kate Brown in 2018, for political advice. Buehler left the GOP after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and was an early supporter of the Johnson campaign, helping her raise money from many of his former supporters.

Buehler declined to comment on his relationship with Knight, but he says he believes Knight’s support for Johnson was genuine. “Without a doubt,” Buehler says, adding that the suggestion that Knight gave money to Johnson to help Drazan is “preposterous.”

Knight gave Johnson $250,000 in January and then turned up at one of Johnson’s house parties, a phenomenon as rare as his granting an interview.

It was a couple of weeks after the Portland polling firm DHM Research released numbers showing that, if Johnson could get her message to voters, she had a decent chance to become only the second unaffiliated Oregon governor ever. “If I were Johnson,” DHM pollster John Horvick told WW on Feb. 1, “I’d be encouraged.”

On Feb. 17, dozens of Oregonians escaping the winter weather in Palm Springs, Calif., crowded into the vacation home of Susie Papé, whose family’s Eugene-based heavy equipment company traditionally supports Republicans. But like many of Oregon’s corporate elite, Papé was a longtime friend of Johnson’s.

People who attended the standing-room-only event say Johnson sold the audience, including Knight, on her vision for Oregon. From that day until Oct. 6, he would give her an additional $3.5 million. (The Papé Group has given Johnson $1 million.)

“Betsy Johnson has known Phil Knight for many years and considers him a friend,” says Jennifer Sitton, Johnson’s campaign manager. “This conspiracy theory is preposterous and utter nonsense—the Democrats are moving into left-wing QAnon territory.”

What’s clear is that Knight is willing to finance anyone who can defeat Kotek. If she wins, she has now promised to return the favor.

If elected, Wertheimer says, Kotek will put a damper on gatherings like the ones in Palm Springs—she’ll push for limits of $2,000 per individual donor.