The 6th District Food Chain: How Crypto Swallowed the Race for a New Congressional Seat – Willamette Week
Bitcoin Republic (Nick Stokes)
Money talks in politics. The last few weeks before election day see a deluge of ads on TV and social media, and a stack of mailers, which politicians hope will inform and persuade voters.
But this cycle, the money coursing through Oregon’s most intriguing electoral contest is cryptocurrency—and not just from a Bahamas-based billionaire.
At every stage of the race for Oregon’s 6th Congressional District, candidates used their money, connections and power to build an advantage. The tactics they’ve employed were often out of the ordinary. They have swamped traditional retail politics and rendered typical campaigns mute. Here are four new approaches, each of which potentially eclipses the last.
1. Draw a map for yourself.
Even before the 6th Congressional District existed, politicians saw opportunity in it.
In June 2021, former Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith became the first person to announce her candidacy—even before maps of the district were drawn. (She didn’t pretend the district would include her home, but said she’d buy a house there once the lines were in place.)
State Rep. Andrea Salinas (D-Lake Oswego), who had served in the state Capitol for six years after first working as a lobbyist, led the effort to draw the new maps for Oregon’s six congressional districts. (She chaired the special committee in the Oregon House.) By Oct. 5, eight days after the Legislature approved those boundaries, Salinas was seeking the seat for the 6th District—some of which overlaps her legislative district. Her own home was not inside the new district’s borders.
Those two facts—that she drew the maps and doesn’t live in the district—have prompted some former allies to raise questions.
“She and I were raised with different understandings of what right and wrong were,” says state Rep. Paul Evans (D-Monmouth). “If I would’ve been chosen to lead the redistricting effort, I would’ve recognized that it would be not the honorable thing to then compete. Because whether it was or wasn’t fashioned to favor me, people would think that.”
Salinas told WW in an endorsement interview she did not personally draw the district lines. “I didn’t create this district, actually,” she says. “[Senate President Peter] Courtney created it. He moved things around.”
Salinas won the endorsements of key Democratic interest groups (the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, Planned Parenthood, Service Employees International Union) and has raised $520,000. But the district extends far enough south to attract other entrants: Dr. Kathleen Harder, onetime head of the Oregon Medical Board, and state Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon (D-Woodburn).
All these women—three of them women of color—have a record of public service. The next entrants are from a different mold.
2. Build a personal fortune from cryptocurrency.
In November, Intel engineer Matt West first upended how this race might run with a pledge to spend whatever it would take to get through the primary. West, who owns between $1 million and $5 million in cryptocurrency, according to official disclosure forms, has put $400,000 into his own candidacy and raised another $400,000. He’s running on a left-wing platform: He’s a Democratic Socialists of America member and supports Medicare for All.
Cody Reynolds officially entered the race in January. A West Point grad who was once arrested for smuggling pot, Reynolds ran for Congress in 2012, 2014 and 2016. This time, he reported donating $2 million to his own campaign—and says he made that fortune through cryptocurrency investments.
“I realized what we all know now to be true: It takes money to win elections,” Cody told WW. “Over the past 10 years, I have been making the money that I need to self-fund my campaign. I’ve been consulting and investing into various 3.0 technologies—cryptocurrencies. I was very early in bitcoin. I was very early in ethereum.”
A candidate with a personal fortune who can self-fund, or raise money from other rich friends to get elected, is a relief to party regulars because it means the national party won’t have to shell out the money.
That’s why the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recruited former state Rep. Brian Clem (D-Salem), among others, to run for the 6th District. Clem has money from real estate and his marriage.
Clem decided not to run. But he says it wasn’t because of the self-funded candidates.
“I thought $1 million to $2 million but no track record, no name ID, no experience, couldn’t point to things they had passed or voted on or worked on,” says Rep. Clem. “So, you know, [it] wasn’t overly daunting. But no one really wants incumbents right now, so I might have been dead in the water anyway.”
3. Know somebody who knows a guy who made a billion in crypto.
The first ads for Carrick Flynn debuted in February. Since then, the Protect Our Future super PAC has spent $8.6 million. That’s the single largest independent expenditure in any primary for the U.S. House.
The spending is placed in sharper relief because Flynn grew up poor and was for a time homeless. He rents his home in McMinnville and reported only $44,347.50 in income last year, from working as a consultant to the foundation Open Philanthropy, which is backed by the wealth of Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, Cari Tuna.
But Flynn was two degrees of separation from the richest man in crypto: Sam Bankman-Fried, 30, a mop-haired tech wiz who sleeps in a beanbag chair in the Bahamas and says he made his fortune to give money to crucial causes, ranging from stopping climate change to keeping artificial intelligence from going haywire. (Not coincidentally, he is also asking Congress for favorable regulation of his company.)
Flynn is friends with Bankman-Fried’s brother Gabriel. (Flynn and Sam Bankman-Fried were themselves Facebook friends, but had no known contact until someone noticed Bankman-Fried had hit “Like” on one of Flynn’s status updates from 2018.) Flynn and Bankman-Fried also share ties in a movement known as “effective altruism,” which posits that wealthy people should base their philanthropic gifts on what produces the greatest good for the most people.
Bankman-Fried’s PAC, Protect Our Future, is spending money in six congressional races—but the biggest checks support Flynn. He hasn’t said why, but most observers think it’s because Flynn has worked on strategies to prevent future viral pandemics.
Jon Isaacs, who was Sen. Jeff Merkley’s campaign manager on his first run for the Senate and is currently organizing an independent expenditure for Portland City Council races, says there’s “no comparison” between the campaigns he ran and the one he sees for Flynn. (Isaacs has given to Salinas.)
“Carrick Flynn could be anyone,” Isaacs says. “He has no campaign of his own. He has no record of community involvement. There is one person who appears to have little to no interest in Oregon, and he’s picked [Flynn] and he’s going to spend what it takes to get this person elected.”
4. Rake in “independent” spending from national groups.
So far, Sam Bankman-Fried has not reported contributtions to other organizations and PACS that have made independent expenditures on behalf of Flynn. But observers have noted a curious series of events in which previously uninvolved PACs jumped in for Flynn.
First, on April 11, House Majority PAC, the national fundraising organization affiliated with Nancy Pelosi and dedicated to supporting Democrats in general elections, began running ads for Flynn. Using independent expenditures, House Majority PAC has spent $1 million on ads for Flynn. The group didn’t directly answer questions about whether it had communicated with Bankman-Fried, but said instead it was merely endorsing the strongest candidate.
It’s unusual for House Majority PAC to pick a side in Democratic Party primaries.
Other curious facts: The newly formed Justice Unites Us PAC, which describes itself as Asian and Pacific Islander led, reports no money on hand but is spending $847,000 on its own independent expenditure to benefit Flynn’s campaign, according to Federal Election Commission filings. A Justice Unites Us PAC staffer who did not identify themself wrote via email: “We comply with all FEC regulations that require disclosures of our contributions and expenditures. Details are available for the public on the FEC website after filings have been submitted.” (No contributions are reported.)
Oddly, the National Wildlife Federation Action Fund also prepared last month to launch an ad campaign on Flynn’s behalf, to the tune of $200,000, according to a tabulation prepared by a rival campaign using FEC filings. (The FEC requires interest groups to disclose planned spending on advertising before it airs.)
The fund, based in Washington, D.C., hadn’t made an independent expenditure for a candidate since 2014. (It pulled back in the days after Flynn’s remarks about feeling sympathy for Timber Unity, which opposes carbon regulations, and his expressing indifference to the northern spotted owl.)
Mike Saccone, an adviser to the fund, says his group endorsed Flynn “based on his commitment to act on climate and his personal experience losing his home during a massive climate-fueled flood.” Saccone wouldn’t answer questions about why the group later spiked the ads, but local environmental organizations lobbied against the expenditure, particularly after Flynn’s spotted owl remarks, according to multiple sources.
The enormous spending by national interest groups is also very unusual—and raises questions about where the groups found the money to spend on an obscure congressional seat in Oregon.
It shows willful disregard of the principle that all politics are local.
“If the [local] people don’t trust their party at the national level, I think that’s a bad thing,” says Jeanne Atkins, a former Democratic secretary of state who, after seeing the lay of the land, gave to Salinas.
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