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One of the most expensive and bitter Democratic primaries in the country is taking place in a newly drawn district in a blue-leaning pocket of Oregon. The race features party infighting, mysterious ties to cryptocurrency and a complaint with the Federal Election Commission. Next week, voters will pick from a crowded field of nine candidates. They're spending more than $18 million to get into the general election. NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales has more.
CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: House Democratic candidate Carrick Flynn is a virtual unknown, drawing millions of dollars in curious political donations. The 35-year-old Oregonian laughs off rumors he was bought by a shadowy puppet master.
CARRICK FLYNN: It's a fun story, right? It's like, oh, here's this, like, secret thing that's happening. They're buying a congressman.
GRISALES: Flynn also laughingly described a recent tweet illustrating him as the Manchurian Candidate to the Oregon Bridge Podcast.
FLYNN: Sam's head on it, and it had, like, my feet on this, like, thing. And they're like, oh, it's the Manchurian Candidate. I think it's hilarious.
GRISALES: Sam's head in that illustration refers to Sam Bankman-Fried, a 30-year-old cryptocurrency billionaire based in the Bahamas who was tracked by Forbes and others for co-founding one of the largest crypto exchanges in the world.
SAM BANKMAN-FRIED: I'm Sam Bankman-Fried. I'm the CEO and co-founder of FTX.
GRISALES: Bankman-Fried's political action committee, Protect Our Future, has funded Flynn's run with more than $10 million, helping flood the 6th District with Flynn's campaign ads.
Portland State University political science professor Richard Clucas says it's unprecedented. After the census, Oregon added a new district southwest of Portland that includes the state capital of Salem.
RICHARD CLUCAS: It's very surprising to see that type of money fly into Oregon in a race like this.
GRISALES: It is also unusual for a candidate with little to no political experience to raise this much money. Flynn, a Yale University grad and a government contractor who moved back to his home state during the pandemic, says his expertise is in pandemic preparedness and artificial intelligence - issues that happen to be of interest to Bankman-Fried.
But some are not buying it. One of Flynn's opponents and tech engineer, Matt West, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, claiming Flynn and Bankman-Fried are colluding. Flynn and his team reject that and say the two have never met. But still, another candidate in that primary, Cody Reynolds, says the race could inspire billionaires everywhere to buy local candidates.
CODY REYNOLDS: If Carrick Flynn wins this race, democracy is dead.
GRISALES: Reynolds, who also dabbled in cryptocurrency as an investor, is self-funding his own campaign to the tune of $2.7 million.
REYNOLDS: This is the test case, right? This is the - can I buy my friend a seat and have them vote for me?
GRISALES: In another twist, the powerful House Majority PAC, which is backed by top Democrats such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi, gave Flynn nearly a million dollars. That fueled more questions. Here's Professor Clucas.
CLUCAS: Usually, the party organizations and groups related to party organizations don't become involved in primaries. And here all of a sudden, one is involved in primaries and giving to a candidate who is not well-known.
GRISALES: As a result, six of Flynn's opponents held a press conference to slam the move. That included the frontrunner in the race, Oregon State Representative Andrea Salinas.
ANDREA SALINAS: It felt like a slap in the face.
GRISALES: The campaign arm for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Building Our Leadership Diversity PAC, or Bold PAC, has backed Salinas. Oregon's 6th claims the state's largest Hispanic population at around 21%, and the Latina lawmaker has drawn more than 90 endorsements. But some polling shows her leading Flynn by only four points.
And last month, a dark-money group PAC called Justice Unites Us, claiming to support Asian American and Pacific Islander voters, sent Flynn, who is not Asian, even more money. Salinas says it is insulting when you consider the diversity of the new district and its candidates.
SALINAS: There are four women in this race and three of whom are women of color.
GRISALES: And all three women of color have years of experience serving in office locally. Two were aides to U.S. senators, including Ron Wyden. That ex-Wyden staffer is former county commissioner Loretta Smith. She is vying to be Oregon's first African American member of Congress. Smith says the flood of money for Flynn plays into an old narrative.
LORETTA SMITH: 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.
GRISALES: The fight over Oregon's new congressional seat has become home to the national debate over outside influence on local politics. And it could prove to be a model to how future elections are won.
Claudia Grisales, NPR News, Washington.
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