If Republicans win the race for Oregon governor, it will be down to one man: Phil Knight.
Knight, of course, is the 84-year-old co-founder and chair emeritus of Nike, the house that Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods built. And in this race to govern Oregon, a bastion of west coast liberalism, Knight has thrown full support behind the Republican Christine Drazan, an anti-abortion, tough-on-crime former lobbyist pushing “election integrity”. In a rare interview with the New York Times, Knight made his motive clear: Oregon’s next governor can be anyone but the Democratic nominee, Tina Kotek.
Knight’s lavish support of the right would seem to betray Nike’s own pursuit of social equality and environmental protection. After all, this is the “Just Do It” brand that champions Serena Williams, that kneels with Colin Kaepernick, that featured Argentina’s first trans female soccer player in a recent advertisement.
Over the years, the company has pledged millions to organizations dedicated to leveling the playing field in all spheres of life. But it has also come under fire for crafting a progressive PR image as cover while manufacturing products in Asian sweatshops with forced labor practices. A 2019 study by the Clean Clothes Campaign gave Nike its worst rating, stating: “The brand can show no evidence of a living wage being paid to any workers.” Worse, a 2020 Washington Post report sourced some Nike products to a Chinese factory “under conditions that strongly suggest forced labor” among Uyghurs, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute thinktank.
Drazan, on the other hand, led a walkout of state GOP legislators before a critical cap-and-trade vote. Besides being fiercely pro-Trump, she is also against transgender athletes in competition. So it figures that Nike, which pledged to cover travel and lodging for employees without abortion access, donated $75,000 to Kotek – who, as speaker, raised the minimum wage, limited state power plant emissions and committed to solving Oregon’s homeless crisis.
Kotek should have been a lock to become Oregon’s next governor when she launched her campaign earlier this year. A lifelong Democrat, Kotek is the state’s furthest-left nominee yet – a policy advocate for a children’s group and a food bank before she was the legislature’s longest-serving speaker.
But Kotek has struggled to push past Drazan, the former GOP house leader who’s only been in politics for three years. Republicans are rubbing their hands at the prospect of retaking the governorship for the first time since the Reagan administration. And it’s Knight who’s kept the door propped open for them.
With more than 73,000 worldwide employees, about 10,000 of them based at their Beaverton headquarters, Nike isn’t just one of Oregon’s biggest employers; it’s made Knight one of the world’s richest men, with an estimated $38bn net worth – money that buys clout in a lot of circles. He has given away more than a billion dollars to his alma maters Stanford and the University of Oregon, where his name is etched all over campus and the Nike swoosh pervades the athletics program.
Historically, Knight had been quite content doing business with Oregon’s Democratic governors – not least John Kitzhaber, a local legend elected to an unprecedented four terms before an ethics scandal forced him from office in 2015. That cleared the way for a fresh generation of Democrats to push progressive legislation that, among other things, would tax the rich and impose stricter regulations on big business – policies that Knight took personally. He clashed with Kitzhaber’s successor, Kate Brown, and gave $3.4m to her 2018 gubernatorial challenger Knute Buehler, who lost by seven points in a repeat of Republicans’ 2014 margin of defeat. “Knight didn’t move the needle at all,” says Jim Moore, an associate professor and director of political outreach at Pacific University.
This time around, Knight has found his efforts boosted by a shift in political winds. In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, Portland has been politicized on the right as a decaying refuge for homelessness and drugs abuse. All the while there has been a movement among the state’s eastern conservative-leaning counties, smarting from statewide Covid lockdowns, to break from their liberal neighbors and reconstitute within Idaho, although the actual population share of secessionists is modest.
To help his cause, Knight endorsed Betsy Johnson, an independent candidate who promised a direct line to her chief benefactor; the lifer in the state legislature holds common cause with abortion rights advocates and the NRA. “She and Phil Knight would fit very well in politics 30 or 40 years ago as moderate Republicans,” says Moore. “Social liberals and fiscal conservatives.” But Johnson’s campaign was damaged by her aggressively pro-gun response to the Uvalde school shooting (the 71-year-old, who favors stronger background checks, is not only a proud machine gun owner, but a robust gun collector) and her reluctance to condemn Confederate flag-waving supporters.
Knight has spent more than $7m on the governor’s race. Nearly half that money went toward boosting Johnson, a former Democrat who has split left-leaning voters. But when her numbers didn’t budge, Knight switched tactics and threw $1.5 million at Drazan. Stumping for Kotek in Portland last month Bernie Sanders called out Knight as a corrupting influence. “Democracy is not billionaires, Phil Knight or anyone else, buying elections,” he crowed.
Overall, Oregon’s gubernatorial race has smashed records with more than $60m in donations; $13m came Drazan’s way via the Republican Governors Association (although Kotek still holds a $5m overall fundraising edge). And yet if Drazan pulls out the victory, it’ll be Knight who gets the credit – which, in this state, would be a major first for him. “A huge number of Oregonians look at him as just a rich guy who’s in it for whatever makes sense for him personally,” says Moore. “He just never moved voters to come along with him.”
Knight says he is far more conservative than Nike and that his views don’t represent the company’s. So far it appears that’s held true. “I can’t imagine there are any brand managers at Nike who are losing too much sleep,” says Matt Baker, chief strategist at the brand management firm Deutsch NY. “Of the enormous consumer base that Nike have, a fraction of a fraction would relate Phil Knight back to the brand or even be able to pick him out of a lineup.
“Could it impact at a local level? If it was going to happen, it would’ve happened already. He’s been pretty vocal about Kate Brown’s failures and the need to wrestle the governorship away from the Democratic party for a little while. And I don’t think we’ve seen a lot of blowback on Nike the brand, the corporate favorite child of Oregon.”
Even in Beaverton, Oregon’s seventh-largest city, Knight has struggled for political sway. “Niketown used to be on the outskirts of Beaverton, and then the outskirts surrounded it,” explains Moore. Over the years, Knight has contributed record amounts to the city’s council races, pumping tens of thousands into campaigns that generally run four figures. “And his candidates all lost,” Moore says. “So that gave me the first hint that Phil Knight doesn’t carry the political weight he thinks he does.”
What’s more, Knight, a middle-distance runner in his youth, still has one major hurdle in his way: registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by almost a quarter million. But if Drazan can somehow clear that obstacle, the sneaker king will finally achieve the status he’s long coveted in Oregon: political Bigfoot.