Even the mythical "Colbert Bump" couldn’t pull off an upset win in Oregon’s First Congressional District special election Tuesday for Rob Cornilles; but the Republican candidate may have carved out a whole new career as an entertainer. Cornilles was trailing Democrat Suzanne Bonamici in late-Tuesday returns for the seat vacated last year by Rep. David Wu, and in a district with a large Democratic registration Bonamici is expected to win. Jeff Mapes, the veteran Oregonian political reporter, called the race shortly after polls closed, with Bonamici holding a 53-41 percent lead.
Although the race won’t change the balance of the House of Representatives, it did produce a last-minute commercial from Cornilles that surely must be an anecdote to negative advertising in campaigns across the country. Cornilles appears in the commercial as a quite-convincing “long lost brother” of television comic Stephen Colbert; the ad has Cornilles appealing to his “brother” for a “Colbert Bump” in last-minute voting. Unfortunately for Cornilles, Oregon votes by mail, and a large percentage of votes were cast well before the Tuesday deadline.
Cornilles had contributed to the negative campaigning with commercials attempting to link Bonamici with Wu, who was forced to resign after a series of bizarre actions and a charge of unwanted sexual advances to a young woman. Wu had represented the district since 1999.
The district takes on a new, and smaller, form for the 2012 regular election cycle; the Tuesday balloting was in the district before redistricting based on the 2010 census; primary and general elections later in the year will be in the new district.
The First District, Northwest Oregon centered on the high-tech corridor between Beaverton and Hillsboro, currently registers a Democratic lead of 42 percent to 30 percent for Republicans and 28 percent independents. Bonamici represents a Beaverton district in the state senate; Cornilles, a businessman, lost to Wu in 2010.
Candidates for the new First District have until March to file for office; Bonamici faced several Democratic opponents in a special primary, but that’s not expected to be repeated in the May primary. The Republican side could be interesting, but Cornilles had a hard time attracting sufficient campaign funds for his race, and that could be a factor in the party's May primary as well.
Redistricting reduces the size of the district, which included several of Oregon’s fastest-growing communities, by removing west Portland’s inner-city and close-in suburbs, reducing some of the Democratic margin but leaving the district leaning toward Democrats. The First is Oregon’s oldest congressional district, formed in 1893 and solidly Republican until Democrat Les AuCoin won an open seat in 1974. No Republican has represented the district since then.
It would be difficult to extrapolate any meaning from Tuesday’s results in terms of other 2012 elections. Barack Obama won Oregon handily in 2008 and carried the First; he remains popular in Oregon and the state has no Republicans in statewide office. The Republican Party in the last two decades has turned to the right but still has a moderate segment that might be attracted by Mitt Romney in the May primary election.
Cornilles is considered a centrist in the current makeup of the GOP in Oregon, and the party hoped a special election might prove magic. The last Republican congressman from the district, Republican Wendell Wyatt, won a special election in 1964, and served until he retired in 1974. But in 1964 Republicans still held many major offices in the state and, although Oregonians voted for Lyndon Johnson in the fall, they also gave Republicans control of the Legislature.