Amid all the reporting on Florida’s January 31st primary something has been lost. Another race is being held that day for a vacant Congressional seat in Oregon. Specifically the 1st Congressional District. The district was vacated when long-time Congressman David Wu left open the seat after a scandal forced him out.
The seat has recently been a Democratic stronghold, not voting for Republican representation since 1973. The district is anchored in the Northeastern part of Oregon and consists of Clatsop, Columbia, Washington and Yamhill counties. The district also stretches into southwest Portland and Multnomah County. Looking at these counties it is easy to see why the district is so Democratic.
Yet both the GOP and Democrats have high hopes for the race. In 2008 Wu was uncontested and the district gave then candidate Obama over 60% of the vote. But in 2010 Wu garnered a meager 55% of the vote and the president’s approval rating in the district is currently upside down.
Republicans nominated 2010 candidate Rob Cornilles to run again for the seat. Democrats had a more crowded primary field but easily settled on former state senator Suzanne Bonamici. Cornilles has name ID after his run in 2010 but also is dragged down by the fact he is, well, a Republican. Bonamici has been introducing herself to the district and proudly portraying herself as a progressive champion.
The dynamics of the race are different from a presidential election or the midterms. The election falls on a day when GOP voters are going to the polls in Florida and less than a year before the presidential election. Dueling polls indicate the race could be close or a blowout. Last week Cornilles campaign released a poll showing them only down 46%-42%, within the margin of error. In return, late that week Bonamici’s campaign released a poll showing her with a double-digit lead. Furthermore, due to Oregon handling its elections through mail-in ballot turnout could be high or low.
Republicans do not argue the district is deeply blue. In fact, Republicans are ready to argue that if the district gives Bonamici anything less than a double-digit victory it shows how weak the Democratic brand and the president are even in deeply blue districts. This means they would likely have no shot of flipping the 25 seat advantage the GOP has in the House. But if Bonamici crushes her challenger than Democrats will be quick to turn around and point out how unpopular the Tea Party driven GOP is.
Talking points aside the DCCC has taken great paints to make sure a repeat of NY-9 does not occur in the district. NY-9 was a heavily blue-collar Democratic district, that like OR-1, had just had a scandal-plagued Democratic Congressman resign. Republicans initially paid little attention to the race but a combination of factors (Israel, weak Democratic candidate, and demographics of district) led to a 54%-46% win for the GOP in September.
The DCCC has dropped an eye-popping $1.3 million in TV ads into the district since the last two weeks of December. In some circles in DC this raised alarms that Democrats are worried about the seat. Maybe, or more likely they just to not want to see this seat get away from them like they let NY-9. The Democratic aligned PAC, Majority PAC also has dropped $300,ooo in ads for Bonamici.
Both Cornilles and Bonamici have been on the airwaves in Portland. Cornilles has portrayed himself as a pragmatic, middle of the road business who will help create jobs for Oregon and the nation. Bonamici has been more supportive of an activist government and has tried to tie Cornilles to the Tea Party. Bonamici obviously has the easier road to appealing to the district’s voters but don’t count Cornilles out. He has recently gained traction with his attack on Bonamici for her lack of job creation and contrasting this with his record as a business owner.
The latest filings show that Cornilles had raised a total of $1.1 million and had slightly more than half left while Bonamici had raised a total of $1.5 million and had about $800,000 left. Cornilles has received little GOP help, certainly nothing to compete with the $1.3 million dropped by the DCCC for Bonamici. But outside groups and a few members of Congress have been giving Cornilles the money to compete in the district.
Regardless of the results both sides will spin it. This spin will of course run smack into the fact that most of the media and public’s attention will be focused on the GOP primary in Florida. For both parties however, much as NY-9 did back in September, the results could yield key information for each party in the run-up to the presidential election.