Special Election Results Ahead: Please Proceed With Caution

by Nathan L. Gonzales February 1, 2012 · 12:34 AM EST

As with any special election, it’s important to exercise restraint when extrapolating wider lessons. At least the presidential race is soaking up enough to attention to limit the opportunities to over-analyze the results in Oregon’s 1st District.

It looks like former state senator Suzanne Bonamici (D) defeated businessman Rob Cornilles (R) by roughly the same margin as a year ago when Rep. David Wu (D) defeated Cornilles by 13 points, 55 percent to 42 percent.

“We assumed there was more excitement than there apparently is,” said Greg Leo, chief of staff at the Oregon Republican Party, on Tuesday before the election results were in.

“A pretty conventional, competent Democrat defeated a pretty conventional, competent Republican in a Democrat district,” explained one GOP strategist. Barack Obama received over 60 percent in the 1st District in 2008.

But despite the partisan nature of the district, Democrats didn’t take anything for granted and believed that a loss would have been devastating to the national narrative about the fight for the House.

In total, Democrats outspent Republicans on television about 4-to-1, according to Smart Media Delta, a GOP buying firm. Bonamici spent about a half a million dollars on television, the Democratic Congressional Committee almost a million, in addition to spending from a few other Democratic groups.

“Democrats used their financial advantage to create and control the narrative of the race,” explained one GOP consultant, who also credited Democrats for destroying two of Cornilles’ key strengths: being an independent and a job creator.

Democrats took a page from Republicans’ playbook from last year’s special election in Nevada, where the National Republican Congressional Committee spent heavily on early television ads to make sure that the race never got out of hand. A difference is that Republicans were defending a district where John McCain won by just 89 votes.

The DCCC sat out the Nevada race while the NRCC was very quiet in Oregon. They spent money on a coordinated ad with Cornilles, in what looked like a reward for running a good campaign. Even though a Moore Information poll for the Cornilles campaign, taken less than three weeks ago, showed the Republican within four points of Bonamici, most GOP strategists were skeptical that the race was ever winnable because of the partisan nature of the district. Obama performed about five points better in the 1st District than in New York’s 9th District that Republicans won last year.

This election in Oregon is notable because of the absence of Obama. Cornilles never focused on the President and Bonamici hardly talked about him either. That dynamic makes this special election different than the dozens of races that will decide the House in November, when the President’s performance will be a huge topic of debate.