(TheHill.com) — When Oregon formally won a new U.S. House seat in the decennial redistricting process last year, it set off a scramble among ambitious politicians who saw a rare chance to advance their careers. Three state representatives, a former county commissioner and the chairwoman of the Oregon Medical Board quickly jumped in the race.
But the conversation in the new district has been dominated by a 35-year-old newcomer making his first run for office who has raised more money than any other contender and who has been bolstered by an unprecedented onslaught of millions of dollars in television advertising paid for by several political action committees.
Now, in a state ordinarily controlled by the Democratic establishment, party insiders are asking one question: Who is Carrick Flynn?
“When he announced, political circles were abuzz because no one knew who he was,” said Casey Kulla, a Yamhill County commissioner who invited Flynn on a get-to-know-you tour of his region. When Flynn showed up for the tour, Kulla said, “I walked up to him with a coffee and said, ‘You are a real person!’”
The rest of the district is learning about Flynn on television. The House Majority PAC, the largest super PAC supporting House Democrats, has already spent $450,000 airing advertising introducing Flynn. Protect Our Future PAC, a group backed by crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, has already spent $6.2 million on television, digital and radio ads and another $500,000 introducing Flynn by mail.
It is an incredible amount of money in a primary contest, especially on behalf of a candidate who has never sought office before. And it has angered Flynn’s rivals who point out that the top Democratic super PAC has opted to weigh in on behalf of a straight white male in a contest that features three women of color.
After the House Majority PAC began spending in the race, six other Democratic candidates released a joint statement condemning the group’s interference.
“We strongly condemn House Majority PAC’s unprecedented and inappropriate decision to spend nearly a million dollars in the Democratic primary,” the six candidates — state Rep. Andrea Salinas (D), state Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon (D), Oregon Medical Board Chairwoman Kathleen Harder, engineer Matt West (D), former Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith (D) and Army veteran Cody Reynolds (D) — said in the statement. “This effort by the political arm of the Democratic establishment to buy this race for one candidate is a slap in the face to every Democratic voter and volunteer in Oregon — and is especially concerning in a year when all resources must go to protecting the Democratic majority.”
Democratic activists and donors are taking note too. One source close to several major donors said they were upset by the House Majority PAC’s involvement in the race. In interviews this week, several activists brought up the group’s involvement unprompted.
“The House Majority PAC’s involvement was absolutely undermining the voters,” said Gustavo Guerrero, the vice chairman of the Yamhill County Democratic Party, who said he has not yet picked a candidate to support. “It seems that national leadership decided to step in and intervene in the primary far too early.”
C.J. Warnke, a House Majority PAC spokesperson, said the group “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.”
In an interview this week, Flynn said he had been as surprised as anyone at the outside support.
“The outside money, I didn’t actually realize how that worked until I was running,” Flynn said. “From small-donor funding, I’ve done really well. I expected that because I have a strong reputation in pandemic prevention communities.”
Many of Oregon’s most prominent Democrats have lined up behind Salinas, a three-term state representative who represents Lake Oswego and part of Portland. Gov. Kate Brown (D) and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D), whose current district includes parts of the new seat, are behind Salinas; she has also won endorsements from the Service Employees International Union, the League of Conservation Voters, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
But for a first-time candidate, Flynn is proving more adept at fundraising than any of the veterans of campaigns past.
Flynn’s campaign reported raising $827,000 since he declared his candidacy earlier this year, more than the rest of the Democratic field combined. Only a tiny fraction of that money has come from Oregon — including donations from two family members.
Much of the rest has come from scientists, philanthropists and others who want the federal government to spend more money preventing the next pandemic, after America’s dismal handling of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed at least a million people in the richest nation on Earth.
It may seem heady company for a kid with humble roots in Vernonia, a rural logging community north and west of Portland. Flynn’s family lost its home to a massive flood in 1996.
“We lived right at zero. We were already getting food from food banks and clothes from churches before the flood,” Flynn said.
A Ford Foundation scholarship sent him to the University of Oregon and then to Yale Law School. His resume shows stints working for nonprofit groups in Kenya, Liberia, East Timor, India, Malaysia, Ethiopia and the United Kingdom, where he helped found the Center for the Governance of AI.
It is a rags-to-riches story that seems tailor-made for the types of political campaign advertisements both Flynn and his outside allies are now running.
“We went into the hills, talked about forestry, talked about water, talked about homelessness. I felt like in some ways, on behalf of lots of other people, I was testing, is this person really real? Like is the backstory real?” Kulla said of his tour with Flynn.
He said he worked with Open Philanthropy, a group funded by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, on a pandemic prevention measure that was included in an early draft of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, though it was not included in a final version signed by President Biden.
The big spending from Bankman-Fried’s political action committee had some political observers in Oregon wondering whether Flynn would come to office advocating a new approach to cryptocurrency — an issue Flynn says he cares little about.
“I am not interested in it. I have not studied it. I don’t have policy recommendations for it,” Flynn said of crypto. “I’m just not a crypto person.”
He said he had never met and did not know Bankman-Fried, though both of the billionaire’s parents have contributed the maximum amount allowed to Flynn’s campaign.
Instead, sources with knowledge of Flynn’s background pointed to the billionaire’s younger brother, Gabe Bankman-Fried, a former aide to Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) who advises Democratic donors — including his brother. The younger Bankman-Fried runs Guarding Against Pandemics, a group of scientists and activists that advocates for better preparedness planning.
“I’ve looked into the different groups, and most of them are doing anti-pandemic work,” Flynn said of those spending on his behalf. “To the extent I can help end pandemics, and they want to do that, I’m on board.”
Neither Sam nor Gabe Bankman-Fried responded to a request for comment sent to their respective organizations.
Many of Flynn’s donors are involved in an online forum called Effective Altruism, a group that analyzes how best to spend money on philanthropic efforts. Their conclusion, according to some of the posts backing Flynn, has been that spending a few million on a congressional race could result in billions in spending on pandemic preparedness by the federal government.
Flynn is “the first person to ever run for US congress on a platform of preventing future pandemics,” wrote one user, Andrew Snyder-Beattie, who called his donation to Flynn “the best $5,800 I’ve ever donated (to pandemic prevention).”
“Nobody in congress has made pandemic preparedness a ‘core issue,’” wrote Snyder-Beattie, whose online profiles say he leads Open Philanthropy’s work on biosecurity and pandemic preparedness. “Carrick will make this a priority, and has committed to devoting a full time staff member to focus on pandemic preparedness issues.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) does not typically get involved in primaries that do not involve incumbents, and the committee has not formally weighed in.
But multiple sources in Oregon, including one who was asked to run himself, say the committee began actively recruiting candidates last year, concerned that the Willamette Valley district could be vulnerable to a Republican takeover. Those sources say national Democrats have signaled that they favor Flynn or Harder, the medical board director.
“The DCCC is not involved in the Oregon 6 primary,” committee spokeswoman Johanna Warshaw told The Hill on Friday.
The new district, which stretches from the Portland suburbs south to Salem through Oregon’s wine country, would have favored President Biden over former President Trump by a 55 percent to 42 percent margin.
Oregon does not have a long history of wealthy candidates blanketing the airwaves or of newcomers winning prominent seats. All five of Oregon’s members of Congress served in the legislature or on county commissions before winning their current posts. The last person to jump straight from private life to a seat in Congress was former Rep. David Wu (D), who first won election in 1998.
The Democrats vying for the new seat have just more than three weeks to win over voters ahead of the May 17 primary. Salinas and others have the advantage of having faced voters before; Flynn has the advantage of being able to spend so much to introduce himself, an edge that leaves some activists in his would-be district cold.
“I am definitely uncomfortable with somebody who’s never held elected office, someone who’s never worked in Congress and someone who’s having a shit ton of money spent on his behalf,” Kulla said in an interview. “I will help him get elected if he’s the Democratic nominee. But he knows I’m a little weirded out by it.”