Time Running Out for GOP to Play in Oregon Special

by Nathan L. Gonzales January 6, 2012 · 10:59 AM EST

BEAVERTON, Ore. — Several thousand miles away from Des Moines, Iowa, and 3,000 from Manchester, N.H., Democrats and Republicans are battling for attention in the first general election contest of 2012.

Ballots go out in Oregon’s 1st district at the end of next week, yet a volunteer at the Rob Cornilles for Congress phone bank last week still had to explain that ex-Rep. David Wu (D) would not be one of the candidates. Instead, Cornilles (R) and Democrat Suzanne Bonamici are running to replace Wu, who resigned his seat last year. The vote-by-mail election is scheduled for Jan. 31.

Oregonians have been distracted by the holidays and the University of Oregon Ducks’ Rose Bowl victory, so voters have yet to focus on the race. But because elections in the Beaver State are conducted entirely by mail and ballots will be distributed Jan. 13, party strategists have little time to make their final decisions.

On paper, the race shouldn’t be that competitive. Cornilles lost to Wu by double digits in the same district just more than a year ago, and Barack Obama crushed John McCain in the 1st district in the 2008 presidential election, 61 percent to 36 percent. That was 6 points better than what Obama won in the New York City district Republicans picked up in a special election last year. If Cornilles were to win, it would be the most Democratic district, in terms of 2008 presidential election results, held by a Republican in Congress.

But that hasn’t stopped the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from spending or committing more than $1 million in television ads to defend the seat, even though there hasn’t been any spending on TV ads by the National Republican Congressional Committee or outside Republican groups.

“It would be devastating for fundraising and momentum, nationally, if we lost this race,” one Democratic strategist said. “If the [ex-Rep. Chris] Lee and [ex-Rep. Anthony] Weiner elections teach anything, it’s that you can’t take a scandal district for granted,” another Democratic strategist said, referencing two New York districts that flipped in 2011 after scandal-plagued Members resigned.

“We’re aware of them,” Bonamici said in a recent interview from her campaign headquarters in Beaverton about Democratic losses in New York and Nevada special elections. “We’re working hard to get out the vote.”

Office Space

Even between Christmas and New Year’s Day, Bonamici’s campaign didn’t take much of a holiday break. Outside the campaign headquarters, eight small “Bonamici for Congress” yard signs along Millikan Way guide people into the Cedar Hills Crossing office park, which also includes a local Habitat for Humanity chapter. Inside, handmade signs blanket the walls, and there was talk of a late-lunch run to Five Guys as staff members got ready for a volunteer rally that evening.

But when Bonamici staffers leave their office, they are greeted by a handful of large “Cornilles for Congress” signs strategically positioned across the intersection as a reminder of the ongoing battle.

The Republican’s campaign headquarters is just a couple of miles away, but there’s a significant contrast in the neighborhood, and the office space is a microcosm of the race thus far.

The Bonamici for Congress campaign is down the street from a new shopping center that features the local specialty grocer, New Seasons Market; a satellite location for the famous Powell’s Books; a Sports Authority; and a movie theater. Cornilles’ campaign is close to a pawn shop and a “full-service” cat hospital and is in the kind of old office building that requires a key to use the restroom.

While Bonamici and the state Democratic Party share offices, Cornilles has space, on his own, that is at least a third of the size of the Democrats’. But he’s not worried about being alone.

“They didn’t knock me off my saddle. They’ve emboldened me,” Cornilles said from his campaign headquarters late last week, referring to the half-million dollars in DCCC attack ads against him. At least another half-million in ads targeting him is scheduled in the final weeks while Republican groups remain on the sidelines.

Minutes before, Cornilles was delivering red meat in a radio interview with state GOP Chairman Allen Alley, who was sitting in for Northwest conservative talk staple Lars Larson.

“When the spotlight is on her, she doesn’t like it,” Cornilles said of Bonamici.

Waiting for Reinforcements

But unless or until GOP groups get in, the Republican businessman will have to carry the fight alone against Bonamici.

This week, Cornilles took to the airwaves criticizing his opponent for being one of the most liberal state legislators, not voting against tax increases and not creating jobs. It’s the first time in her political career that she’s been attacked on television. Recent columns by the Oregonian’s Jeff Mapes and in Willamette Week gave both sides ample ammunition for their 30-second ads.

“I’m proud of my career and my record,” Bonamici told Roll Call before the attacks even made it to the airwaves and before heading south for an editorial board meeting in McMinnville last week. Democratic strategists understand the attacks have the potential to damage their nominee, but they remain confident that their messages against Cornilles are stronger.

The DCCC has used some of the Republican’s past statements to paint him as the “original tea party candidate,” and Democrats will go after his record as a businessman by saying his rhetoric doesn’t match the reality of his success.

“In my worst year of hiring, I’ve hired more people than my opponent’s best year,” said Cornilles, eager for a debate over job creation. “For any small-business owner, there will be bumps in the road. This district gets that.”

Weighing the Numbers

Cornilles might be right about the business acumen of the 1st district, but its partisan divide looks to be his biggest challenge. The Republican is running as an outsider with a bipartisan approach in a district where Democrats need few independent voters to win. Through September, Democrats had a considerable edge of 42 percent to 30 percent in voter registration, while 22 percent were nonaffiliated voters.

The only public poll in the race, conducted in mid-December by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, showed Bonamici with an advantage of 52 percent to 41 percent and didn’t give Republicans any additional reason to get involved. [Note: After this piece appeared in Roll Call, SurveyUSA (IVR) released a survey that showed Bonamici with a 50 percent to 39 percent advantage.]

Democratic strategists are adamant that their spending is merely an “insurance policy” and similar to Republican efforts to hold Nevada’s 2nd district last year. But it looks as if the DCCC will exceed the NRCC’s volume of TV ads from that race, 4,579 versus 4,170 gross ratings points. Republicans were also defending a district where McCain received 49 percent, while Obama carried this Oregon district with 61 percent.

With time running out, it’s likely that any potential players will soon take one last look at the race. Even though GOP strategists praise Cornilles as a candidate, they’re discouraged by the district’s demographics and reluctant to spend money winning a seat that would be costly and potentially impossible to hold in November. But there is little evidence he can win this race on his own against Bonamici, the DCCC and other Democratic groups.

Because most voters are just tuning in, there is time for the dynamic to change. The candidates will face off Friday in a big debate at the Portland City Club. But it looks as if the string of wild special elections is at least temporarily over.