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Bitter feuds and crypto ties: Inside one of the most expensive Democratic primaries

Political newcomer Carrick Flynn, right, has raised millions of dollars from outside groups ranging from one backed by a 30-year-old crypto billionaire to another that is backed by congressional Democratic leaders.
ADB.Photography
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ADB.Photography
Political newcomer Carrick Flynn, right, has raised millions of dollars from outside groups ranging from one backed by a 30-year-old crypto billionaire to another that is backed by congressional Democratic leaders.

In a new congressional district in Oregon, House Democratic candidate Carrick Flynn is a virtual unknown and political novice drawing millions of dollars from curious sources.

The 35-year-old Oregonian recently laughed off rumors he was bought by a shadowy puppet master.

"It's a fun story, right? It's like, 'Oh, here's this, like, secret thing that's happening: They're buying a congressman,'" Flynn recently told Oregon's The Bridge by OR360 podcast.

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Flynn has become a controversial figure in one of the country's most expensive and bitter Democratic primaries in Oregon's 6th Congressional District.

The new, blue-leaning district has seen party infighting, mysterious ties to cryptocurrency and a complaint to the Federal Election Commission.

It's also raised questions of race for the district, which claims the state's highest percentage of Latino residents at around 21 percent. It was added after the 2020 Census to serve a region southwest of Portland that includes vast wine country and the state capital of Salem.

Next week, voters will pick a winner from a crowded field of nine candidates — five men and four women — spending more than $18 million to face off against the winner of the Republican primary. That race has seven candidates facing long odds in a state that has not elected more than one Republican at a time to the House in nearly 30 years.

The race has made for the third most expensive House Democratic primary in the country, according to the nonpartisan, nonprofit group OpenSecrets. By Monday, the Democratic race drew more than $13 million in outside money, OpenSecrets reported.

The vast majority of that — more than $10 million — was donated to Flynn's campaign by a group backed by a cryptocurrency billionaire.

And in a rare move, a political action committee, or PAC, tied to top House Democrats such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi spent nearly $1 million to support Flynn.

"It's very surprising to see that type of money fly into Oregon in a race like this that in many ways seems so obscure nationally," said Richard Clucas, a professor who has taught political science at Portland State University for the last 27 years.

It is also unusual for a candidate with little to no political experience to raise this amount of funds. Records show Flynn has voted only twice in Oregon.

"One has to wonder what's going on," Clucas said, "and why these outside forces have decided to contribute to one of the candidates in that district."

The race in the neighboring redrawn 5th District has also attracted a ton of outside money, much of it for incumbent Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader who is facing a primary challenge from Jamie McLeod-Skinner.

'The Manchurian Candidate'

For Flynn's part, he laughingly described a recent tweet featuring him as a "Manchurian candidate," a reference to the film by that name in which a politician is programmed to follow the directives of his puppet master.

"They took like a poster for 'The Manchurian Candidate' and they made like, they had, like, Sam's head on it" and Flynn "on this, like, thing, and like, 'Oh, he's Manchurian candidate,'" Flynn told the Oregon Bridge podcast. "I think it's hilarious. Like, you know, I'm going to... print that out and put it on my wall."

"Sam" refers to Sam Bankman-Fried, a 30-year-old American cryptocurrency billionaire based in the Bahamas. His political group's more than $10 million donation is considered an astronomical figure for a House Democratic primary.

The PAC backed by Sam Bankman-Fried, founder and CEO of FTX, has donated more than $10 million to Flynn's campaign.
Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
The PAC backed by Sam Bankman-Fried, founder and CEO of FTX, has donated more than $10 million to Flynn's campaign.

Flynn, a Yale University grad and government contractor who moved back to his home state during the pandemic, says his expertise is in artificial intelligence and pandemic preparedness, an issue that is of interest to Bankman-Fried and his PAC.

But some are saying Bankman-Fried has gone beyond interest to involvement. One of Flynn's Democratic opponents, tech engineer Matt West, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, claiming Flynn and Bankman-Fried were colluding, breaking a law that bans outside groups from coordinating with candidates.

Flynn spokesman Christian Sinderman slammed the accusation, saying the two have never met and their connection is very limited.

"We would argue that it's all benevolent and that we're talking about pandemic preparedness," Sinderman said. "So there's no collusion. There's no relationship. This is all fabricated. You know, tactics by opposition. And really, this race is about the future and about the people of Oregon."

A spokesman for the Bankman-Fried-backed PAC, which is called Protect Our Future, also slammed the accusations of inappropriate contact. Rather, the spokesman said the PAC's focus was on avoiding more pandemic failures, such as those seen under previous elected officials, and they see Flynn as a champion in such efforts.

Flynn grew up in the Northwest Oregon town of Vernonia before his family lost its home in a flood. He later won a college scholarship followed by travels around the world. During the pandemic, he moved from Washington, D.C., to McMinnville in the heart of Oregon's wine country.

If Flynn wins, 'Democracy is dead'

Dr. Kathleen Harder, a Democrat running against Flynn, says the campaign has lost oxygen that should instead be focused on women's reproductive rights as the Supreme Court appears set to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade case.

"It's really upsetting that the amount of money is taking away from some of the bigger conversations that we should be having," Harder said.

Another Democratic primary candidate, Cody Reynolds, said the race could inspire billionaires everywhere to buy local candidates.

"If Carrick Flynn wins this race, democracy is dead," Reynolds told NPR.

Reynolds, who also dabbled in cryptocurrency as an investor, says he's self-funded his own campaign to the tune of $2.7 million.

"This is the test case, right? This is the 'Can I buy my friend a seat and have them vote for me or vote in my interest?'" Reynolds asked. "This is where our democracy has ended up. And it's disturbing to me."

'Money doesn't buy victory,' but it can buy name ID

Bankman-Fried co-founded FTX, one of the largest crypto exchanges in the world recently featured in a Super Bowl ad and the namesake of the Miami Heat basketball team's home arena.

Bankman-Fried has said he's drawn to "impressive people" working on issues of artificial intelligence and pandemic preparedness — which overlap with Flynn's interests as well.

"Another way that that one has impact is by helping to fund some of these causes," Bankman-Fried recently told Forbes. "That's what I've been doing."

Bankman-Fried said he believes in effective altruism, the philosophy to maximize financial gifts, and says he's on a mission to give his fortune away.

His PAC has also funded a few Democratic primary candidates. For example, the PAC sent $2 million to Georgia Rep. Lucy McBath, who is facing off against House colleague Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux after the state's redistricting shifts.

But by far, Protect Our Future has sent the most Flynn's way and counting. It's helped flood Oregon's 6th with Flynn's television ads and campaign mailers.

"It certainly makes some people very angry," Clucas said. "Money doesn't buy victory, but it can buy name recognition."

Bankman-Fried has previously donated to President Biden's campaign and other Democrats. He's also made recent appearances in media and on Capitol Hill. On Thursday, Bankman-Fried is slated to testify before the House Agriculture Committee as lawmakers ramp up their look at regulating crypto.

In a brief emailed comment to NPR, Bankman-Fried declined to elaborate on his motivation in supporting Flynn.

"Pandemics are bad; preventing them is good!" he said.

House Democrats' campaign arms face off

Less than a handful of times in recent years, has the powerful House Majority PAC, which is backed by Pelosi and other leaders in the lower chamber, endorsed a candidate in a Democratic primary.

It broke with that tradition again when it gave Flynn more than $939,000 this election cycle. PAC Communications Director CJ Warnke said it's doing "whatever it takes" to keep the House under Democratic control.

"We believe supporting Carrick Flynn is a step towards accomplishing that goal," Warnke said in a statement. "Flynn is a strong, forward looking son of Oregon who is dedicated to delivering for families in the 6th District."

But that support has raised more questions.

"Usually the party organizations and groups related to party organizations don't become involved in primaries," Clucas said. "And here, all of a sudden, one is involved in primaries and giving to a candidate who is not well known."

6th District Democratic candidates appear before the media in Salem, Ore., on April 12, 2022, to denounce the House Majority PAC's support for Flynn. From left: Andrea Salinas, Loretta Smith, Cody Reynolds, Kathleen Harder and Matt West.
Andrew Selsky / AP
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AP
6th District Democratic candidates appear before the media in Salem, Ore., on April 12, 2022, to denounce the House Majority PAC's support for Flynn. From left: Andrea Salinas, Loretta Smith, Cody Reynolds, Kathleen Harder and Matt West.

The move quickly triggered six of Flynn's opponents to hold a press conference to slam the move.

"If felt like a slap in the face," Oregon State Rep. Andrea Salinas, the frontrunner in the 6th's Democratic primary, told NPR.

The campaign arm for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, known as the Building Our Leadership Diversity, or CHC BOLD PAC, had already backed Salinas to the tune of nearly $1 million.

With a high concentration of Hispanic residents, the Latina lawmaker and former staffer for the late Nevada Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has drawn more than 90 endorsements. Still, Salinas noted, recent internal polling shows her leading Flynn by 4 points, "a statistical dead heat."

"He has been up with ads for like 12 weeks... and I just went up on air about three weeks ago," Salinas said. "So it felt really daunting" early on.

Still, she says her 4-point lead gives her hope.

"It goes to show you that Oregonians cannot be bought," she said. "I'm just really proud of the team that we're building and the support that we're building for something that feels much more Oregonian in nature."

State Rep. Andrea Salinas, right, the frontrunner in the Democratic primary, said the House Majority PAC's backing of Flynn "felt like a slap in the face."
/ Chris Becerra Photography
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Chris Becerra Photography
State Rep. Andrea Salinas, right, the frontrunner in the Democratic primary, said the House Majority PAC's backing of Flynn "felt like a slap in the face."

The 'old' white man narrative

Flynn has had his share of stumbles in the race.

Among them, he downplayed protections needed for the spotted owl, a major state issue. He also expressed sympathy for an extremist group known as Timber Unity.

That drew a rebuke in a joint statement from several of Oregon's environmental groups.

Flynn's spokesman Sinderman said the candidate misspoke in those cases. He argues Flynn is a non-traditional candidate who brings humility to the race.

"This is not someone who looked in the mirror as a young person said, 'I want to run for Congress,' right?" Sinderman said. "This is a data-driven, policy wonk who, if anything, is a little awkward in the public sphere and really is doing this out of a sense of obligation and a sense of civic engagement."

But still, the outside money has kept coming for Flynn.

Last month, a dark money group called the Justice Unites Us PAC, claiming to support Asian American and Pacific Islander voters, gave Flynn more than $846,000. Flynn is not Asian and so far he's the only candidate to receive money from the group.

In a statement shared by Flynn's campaign, the Justice Unites Us PAC said the candidate "will be the ally AAPI voters in his district deserve."

Sinderman acknowledges Flynn is running as a white man in one of the state's more diverse districts, but argues he brings a unique experience of poverty from his youth and travels to impoverished nations as an adult.

This, as Oregon's 6th Democratic primary candidates features four women, three of whom are women of color and have years of experience serving in office statewide or locally.

That includes Loretta Smith, a former staffer to Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and a former county commissioner who is vying to be the state's first African American member of Congress.

Smith says the flood of money for Flynn is old hat.

"Well, it plays into the old narrative," she said. "White men, they are put up on a pedestal, with less experience, less education, less elected experience, experience working for a member of Congress — and all he has to do is to be a white man and he can attract money."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 13, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story mischaracterized outside spending in the Oregon 5th Congressional District race.