Special congressional election in Oregon tests Democrats

After the departure of a troubled Congressman, Oregon's Democrats are trying to hold what should be a safe seat.

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Washington state ballot (2010).

After the departure of a troubled Congressman, Oregon's Democrats are trying to hold what should be a safe seat.

They will go through the whole routine again in the fall, but voters in Oregon’s First Congressional District are seeing plenty of intensity in a special election to fill the remainder of the term of Democrat David Wu, who resigned last year after 13 years in Congress. That was after he was accused of a series of bizarre behaviors, culminating with a charge that he had made sexual advances to the teen-age daughter of a friend.

Democrat Suzanne Bonamici, a state senator and former Federal Trade Commission lawyer, has a lead of more than 10 percent in recent polling over Republican Rob Cornilles, founder of a sports-marketing firm. The winner goes to Congress but quickly returns home to defend the seat in November.

Mail ballots went out Friday (Jan. 13) and will be counted on Jan. 31. It will be the last election in the old First District; all districts were reapportioned last year after the 2010 Census, and the First District will lose voters in West Portland. Otherwise the district is very similar to the previous alignment in terms of geography and political alliances. Regardless of who wins on Jan. 31, the margin of victory may determine whether the loser will stay in the race for November.

Off-cycle elections are watched for electoral trends, and in this case shock and awe would erupt if Republican Cornilles is able to pull off an upset in a district with a Democratic registration margin of about 12 percent. In 2010, despite a national Republican surge and with incumbent Woo already beginning to fray around the edges, Cornilles lost to Wu by 13 percentage points. Republican kingmakers are sitting on their pocketbooks and Bonamici has a big funding advantage.

Closing debates brought a sharp edge to the contest, with Cornilles charging Bonamici and her husband, also a lawyer, with helping prop up the troubled Wu and supporting him despite his increasingly strange behavior. Top Wu staffers resigned last year after calling on the congressman to seek counseling. Bonamici, said Cornilles, was part of a "Democratic elite" helping the congressman stay in office.

Bonamici accused Cornilles, in the debate sponsored by The Oregonian and KGW-TV, of being outside the moderate views of the First District. She noted that Cornilles has not acknowledged the commonly held view among scientists that humans are the big cause of global warming. Cornilles said he hasn’t made up his mind, responding, “I’m running for Congress, not scientist.”

The question may be of particular interest in the district, centered on Oregon “Silicon Forest,” home to much of the state’s scientific research and development. The district’s congressional representative will be expected to push for scientific causes and funding, as Wu did during his tenure.

Washington County, heart of the “Silicon Forest,” is also the heart of the First Congressional District; Beaverton and Hillsboro are the district’s largest cities (79,000 each). The district works its way up the Columbia from historic Astoria to Beaverton, and down into the Pinot Noir vineyards of Yamhill County. The district has been Democratic since Les AuCoin won an open seat in 1974.

Prior to AuCoin’s victory, the seat had been Republican since it was created in 1893. Among Republicans serving in Congress from the district was Willis Hawley (1907-33), co-author of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, a rigidly protectionist measure cited by some as worsening the Great Depression.

Redistricting did little to change district lines; the west side of Portland was transferred into the Third District, represented by Democrat Earl Blumenauer. But the dominance of Washington County’s suburban cities and high-tech industries remained.

Bonamici bested two well-known opponents in a special Democratic primary, while Cornilles had no major GOP challengers. From the beginning, the race was considered the Democrats’ territory, despite Wu’s worsening reputation. Bonamici led by 11 percent in a SurveyUSA poll announced Jan. 5; a different poll in mid-December showed an identical 11-point lead for the Democrat. National Republican organizations have not sent major money into the state, in contrast with heavy spending by Democrats.

The Oregonian reported that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee bought or reserved $1.3 million in television advertising for Bonamici leading up to the vote. A commercial linking Cornilles to the Tea Party has been dominant, the paper reported. But The Oregonian’s fact-checker ruled the Tea Party link “mostly false.”

Oregon continues to be a Democratic stronghold; the party holds both U.S. Senate seats and four of the five House seats as well as all statewide elected officers; the state voted for Barack Obama in 2008. Contributing to the erosion of what was once a dependable Republican state has been the departure of veterans of the liberal Republican era epitomized by Govs. Mark Hatfield (later U.S. Senator) and Tom McCall, both deceased.

One of the last leaders of that brand of Republican, former State Attorney General David Frohnmayer, announced his support for Democrat Bonamici; Frohnmayer was the party’s candidate for governor in 1990, losing largely because the emerging conservative element in the party sponsored an independent in the general election. Republicans have struggled since that time to put forward an electable slate on offices above the legislative level.

Given that history, Cornilles attempted to separate himself from the national Republican Party, but wound up supporting many of its policies, while failing to get its financial support. Bonamici, who endorsed most national Democratic positions, painted Cornilles as more conservative than most voters in the district.

If she gets through the Jan. 31 voting with a decent margin, Bonamici would seem to fit the mold of Oregon members of Congress who stick around for a while. At age 57, she has had a successful career as a federal attorney protecting consumer rights and her five years in the Oregon Legislature paint her as hardworking and centrist. She would be the second woman to represent the district in Congress; Democrat Elizabeth Furse held the spot from 1993 to 1999. Like Furse, Bonamici has strong support from feminist and pro-choice organizations.

This story has been changed since it first appeared to correct the timing of the district boundary shifts for Oregon's congressional elections.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.