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Nike co-founder Phil Knight shifts support to Republican candidate in tight OR governor race

Candidate for the Republican nomination for Governor Christine Drazan at an election night party at Willamette Valley Country Club in Canby, Ore., May 17, 2022.
Kristian Foden-Vencil
Candidate for the Republican nomination for Governor Christine Drazan at an election night party at Willamette Valley Country Club in Canby, Ore., May 17, 2022.

Rumors had circulated all week in Oregon political circles: Nike co-founder Phil Knight was unimpressed by Betsy Johnson’s stagnant poll numbers in the race for governor and might be reconsidering his options.

On Thursday, Knight’s checkbook made it official.

Oregon’s richest man donated $1 million to Republican Christine Drazan’s campaign, all but guaranteeing Drazan will have the funding she needs to compete with Democrat Tina Kotek in an extremely tight race.

“Phil Knight is a pioneering and respected leader not just in Oregon, but across the globe,” said Trey Rosser, Drazan’s campaign manager. “It’s a tremendous honor to have his support as well as the support of so many Oregonians from across our state.”

The contribution, first reported by Willamette Week, marks an abrupt turn for Knight, who has spent $3.75 million helping prop up Johnson’s attempt to become the state’s first governor not affiliated with a major political party in nearly a century. That’s far more than Knight has donated to any other political campaign, and the most an individual donor has contributed to a politician in state history.

Johnson and her advisers acknowledged from the beginning that it would not be easy to win as an independent in a system dominated by the two major parties. They reasoned that Johnson’s long legislative history and powerful ability to raise funds might overcome those headwinds.

But polling has suggested Johnson’s energetic campaign is unlikely to be successful. Four recent pollsall showed Drazan and Kotek in a statistical tie, with Drazan holding small leads that were within the margins of error. Johnson trailed by double digits in each survey.

Johnson’s presence in the race has been a puzzle to political observers, who wondered whether the former Democrat would pull more from her former party or prove a draw to Republicans tired of losing. With her candidacy looking increasingly like a long shot, some of that support could drift back to the top two candidates.

“Phil Knight loves our state and like most Oregonians knows we need change from the failures of Kate Brown and Tina Kotek,” said Jennifer Sitton, a spokeswoman for Johnson’s campaign. “There are only two candidates in this race who can deliver change and he knows that. Betsy is proud to have his support.”

As of Thursday, Johnson had reported raising the most of any campaign, $16.4 million, with $1.8 million still on hand. Kotek has raised $14.9 million and had $2.3 million to spend. Drazan had raised the least, $13.9 million, but also has the most remaining: $3.5 million.

All three leading gubernatorial candidates are scheduled to meet for their fourth debate on Thursday evening, a televised event in Medford.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Dirk VanderHart