Oregon gained a new House seat after the 2020 census, which offers Democrats one of their clearest pickup opportunities anywhere in the nation. But this week, Democratic candidates in the new district — along with progressive and Latino members of Congress — condemned a super PAC affiliated with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other leading national Democrats for trying to pick favorites in a rare competitive primary.
Six of the nine Democratic candidates running in Oregon's 6th congressional district issued a joint statement on Tuesday slamming House Majority PAC over a $1 million ad buy promoting Carrick Flynn, a little-known first-time candidate who has already received about $5 million in backing from cryptocurrency billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried.
"We strongly condemn House Majority PAC's unprecedented and inappropriate decision to spend nearly a million dollars in this Democratic primary," Democratic candidates Andrea Salinas, Kathleen Harder, Teresa Alonso Leon, Loretta Smith, Cody Reynolds and Matt West said in the statement. The House Majority PAC normally helps fund Democrats in competitive races against Republicans, and the six candidates said it "should not be spending resources to divide Democrats. We call on House Majority PAC to actually stand by our party's values and let the voters of Oregon decide who their Democratic nominee will be."
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The PAC spent hundreds of thousands on ad buys in Portland, although some of the total $1 million spend was allocated for the general election, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Flynn's campaign said he was "honored" to have the PAC's support. "We feel this is a clear indication that Carrick's focus on family wage jobs, support for small and rural communities, and pandemic preparedness is the best fit for this critical district," Flynn campaign manager Avital Balwit said in a statement to Salon. "Carrick is proud to have the backing from a broad coalition of supporters from throughout Oregon's 6th congressional district, across the state and from all over the country. The path to keeping the House in Democratic hands starts right here in Oregon's 6th."
House Majority PAC defended the ad buy when asked about the Democratic pushback.
"House Majority PAC is dedicated to doing whatever it takes to secure a Democratic House Majority in 2022, and we believe supporting Carrick Flynn is a step towards accomplishing that goal," said CJ Warnke, the group's communications director, in a statement to Salon that also described Flynn as "a strong, forward-looking son of Oregon."
Flynn's campaign site describes him as a candidate from humble beginnings, whose family was poor and left homeless by a flood that destroyed their home. After attending the University of Oregon on a scholarship and and later going to Yale Law School, he worked on research projects involving national security and pandemic preparedness at Oxford and Georgetown. He moved back to Oregon from Washington, D.C., in 2020, according to the Salem Statesman Journal. Flynn's campaign told Salon that his background in pandemic preparedness motivated him to run for Congress and that he had written part of the Biden administration's pandemic prevention plan.
Flynn's campaign largely focuses on creating more high-tech and green jobs, improving health care access, and implementing pandemic prevention measures. But it's his wealthy backers from far outside Oregon that have drawn the most local attention. Although he's a political newcomer, Flynn has become one of the more visible candidates in the race after the Protect Our Future PAC, a group funded by Bankman-Fried, founder of the crypto exchange FTX, sunk nearly $5 million into ads supporting him. Another group called Justice Unites Us PAC reported spending $850,000 to back Flynn. Sources of funding for that PAC were not immediately clear.
Bankman-Fried, a 30-year-old billionaire who founded FTX in 2019, made a big splash in 2020 with more than $5 million in donations to super PACs backing Joe Biden's presidential campaign. Since then, however, Bankman-Fried has contributed extensively to numerous Republican senators, including Mitt Romney of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, according to Politico. In that article, Bankman-Fried said his campaign donations were not necessarily tied to his policy aims for a "cryptocurrency ecosystem," although his company has circulated a "regulatory wish list" that would allow trading platforms to choose their own regulators, according to the report.
In an interview with the Statesman Journal, Flynn, the congressional candidate, insisted that he has "no background in crypto" and no "interest in crypto."
Flynn's campaign sought to distance the candidate from Bankman-Fried's business objectives. "Protect Our Future chose to support Carrick because of his hands-on work on pandemic prevention, and policy," Balwit told Salon. "If you look at the PAC's goals on their website, they care about pandemic preparedness and prevention. They are also backing other candidates, including some elected officials, who have strong stances on pandemic preparedness and prevention. As for Sam Bankman-Fried, while it appears that he does do advocacy around crypto, his primary focus is an advocacy project around pandemics."
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Five of the six Democrats who condemned the House Majority PAC for trying to tip the primary scale toward Flynn held a joint press conference on Tuesday, where candidate Kathleen Harder, a physician, called Flynn a "phantom candidate" who has largely been absent from the campaign trail.
"We've seen him nowhere in the district, he doesn't show up to any events in person," agreed fellow candidate Cody Reynolds, an Army veteran.
Matt West, another primary contender, called out Flynn's financial backers. "This candidate is the preferred candidate of billionaires, clearly," he said.
According to his Democratic opponents, crypto-funded Carrick Flynn is a "phantom candidate." One said, "We've seen him nowhere in the district." Another called him "the preferred candidate of billionaires."
The out-of-state millions backing Flynn have frustrated the other candidates. State Rep. Andrea Salinas, who has the most in-state support in the field, has raised just $520,000 by comparison, according to Willamette Week.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is supporting Salinas, currently the No. 3 Democrat in the state House, in the new district southwest of Portland, where more than 20% of residents are Latino. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., the chairman of the caucus' fundraising arm BOLD PAC, slammed the House Majority PAC for "spending critical resources against a woman who has spent decades fighting for progressive causes and who will excite Democratic voters in November."
In a statement, Gallego said that Democrats should focus on "investments to empower Latino and Latina candidates like Andrea who are running strong campaigns focused on issues that matter to communities of color and working families." Oregon has never had a Latino representative in Congress, he noted, "and the 6th district ... has the opportunity to make history this year." He added that the big ad buy in support of Flynn "stands in contrast" to Salinas' endorsements from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund.
Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, a BOLD PAC board member, warned that Democrats who take the Latino vote for granted "do so at their own peril."
"At a time when reproductive rights are at stake, Democrats should be moving mountains to ensure that there are more women at the table — especially women of color — instead of actively trying to tip the scales against an exceptionally experienced Latina," she said in a statement.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., has not backed a candidate in the district but joined a growing number of national Democrats critical of the House Majority PAC decision.
"I haven't endorsed in this race," he tweeted, "but it's flat-out wrong for House Majority PAC to be weighing in when we have multiple strong candidates vying for the nomination."