When Phil Knight contributed $500,000 last summer to Knute Buehler’s campaign for governor, it made news as the largest single donation to a candidate by an individual in the history of Oregon politics.

But when considering all contributions, not just those by individuals to candidates, it doesn’t even make the top 70, according to the secretary of state’s campaign finance database.

Of the 34 campaign contributions over $1 million, all but one were to campaigns or political action committees involved in initiatives. The exception: $1.5 million given by a Republican governors’ group to Chris Dudley, the 2010 GOP nominee for governor, who lost to Democrat John Kitzhaber.

With 2018 bringing possible ballot measures on grocery prices, affordable housing and other issues of interest to deep-­pocketed business and labor interests, the governor’s race might once again be eclipsed by spending on ballot measures. Initiatives have until July 6 to get on the November general election ballot. There are currently 27 active initiatives.

The Oregon constitution’s expansive definition of free speech has extended to campaign spending, where any individual, corporation, union, group or other entity can contribute an unlimited amount of money.

Initiatives were created in Oregon during the Progressive movement early in the 20th century as a way for citizens to go around the Oregon Legislature and governor when they felt their representatives’ actions were not in the public interest. But the citizen’s initiative process has become increasingly dominated by big money, often from out of state.

Jim Moore, director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University, said it takes a deep wallet to seriously compete in the “Oregon system” of initiatives.

“The money has really taken off in the last 35 years, since the anti-tax movement of that culminated in Measure 5 in 1990, which limited property taxes,” Moore said.

The biggest single campaign contribution on record in Oregon is the $4.46 million that chemical industry giant Dupont Pioneer spent on the “No on 92 Coalition” in 2014, one of several contributions from the company.

Monsanto, another major chemical industry company, ties for the second highest single contribution with $2.5 million to the “No on 92 Coalition.”

Measure 92, an initiative that would have required labeling to include whether food products were genetically engineered, lost by less than 1,000 votes out of 1.5 million cast.

Tobacco company Philip Morris gave $2.5 million to the “Stop the Measure 50 Tax Hike” in 2007. The initiative, which would have used a tobacco tax to fund health care, was handily defeated.

Also in the top 10: Two $2 million contributions in 2008 from the Oregon Education Association to Defend Oregon, a political action committee that according to the political tracking website Ballotpedia, was involved that year in nine different education and labor-related ballot measures.

The Defend Oregon position won in all nine of the contests.

Of the 50 largest single campaign contributions in the secretary of state’s database, 30 are from out-of-state contributors.

It’s a list that includes corporations (Albertson’s, Reynolds American, Costco, PepsiCo, Dow AgroSciences), unions (National Education Association, Service Employees International Union), interest-oriented groups (National Association of Realtors, Nature Conservancy) and wealthy individuals (former New York mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg and Texas billionaire hedge fund investor John Arnold).

A recent example of the huge amounts spent on initiative campaigns is Measure 97, the 2016 corporate tax measure in which more than $40 million was spent — about $14 million by the proponents and $26 million by opponents. The measure was defeated with a 59 percent “no” vote.

Moore said in the late 20th century, initiatives were sometimes vehicles to drive certain segments of the electorate to the ballot box, where they might also vote in favor or against a candidate with a position on a major initiative. But Moore said Oregon’s high voter turnout and independent streak has made the effect of such an approach unnecessary.

“The benefit to a candidate of supporting an initiative has been marginal,” Moore said. “The initiatives stand on their own.”

— Reporter: 541-525-5280, gwarner@bendbulletin