Is Climate Ripe for GOP to Make Dent in Oregon?

Posted September 3, 2010 at 6:09pm

Oregon Republicans are as curious as political handicappers to see how things play out in November.

There appears to be an opportunity for the GOP to make inroads at both the state and federal levels, but the realities of running in one of the most Democratic-leaning states makes it difficult to predict success.

In particular, local and national political observers are keeping an eye on two Democrat-held House districts: Rep. David Wu’s 1st district and freshman Rep. Kurt Schrader’s 5th district.

“I don’t for a second believe that I have a compass on the angst that’s out there, but I do believe that there is a lot of uncertainty about [President Barack] Obama’s policies,” said Chuck Adams, a veteran GOP consultant in Oregon. “But Oregon being Oregon, there is still an underlying Democratic lean.”

In his firm’s statewide polling, Adams has watched as the Democratic edge evaporated over the past year. The 12-point generic ballot advantage for Democrats last fall was gone by the spring, he said.

Republicans are seeing similar movement nationwide. Gallup’s last generic ballot test before Labor Day found Republicans with an unprecedented 10-point lead, as well as a 25-point enthusiasm gap between the two parties.

But for Republicans to win in Oregon, where Democrats hold a 200,000-voter edge in statewide registration, candidates need to win a significant percentage of Democrats. That’s especially true in Wu’s Portland-based district, which has 52,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans — and where only Democrats have been elected since 1974.

There are 90,000 “nonaffiliated” voters in the district, but it would be a challenge for a Republican to win enough of them to make up for the gap between the two parties.

“The question is, can the enthusiasm of the Republicans overcome the huge registration disadvantage that they have?” said Jim Ross, a San Francisco-based Democratic consultant who regularly works for candidates in Oregon. “While there is a lot of interest and energy amongst Republicans, I don’t feel like there’s the level of enthusiasm there that you’re seeing in other districts around the country.”

In a January 2007 floor speech, Wu famously used a “Star Trek” analogy to criticize President George W. Bush, proclaiming that there were “Klingons in the White House.” As odd as it seemed, Ross said that reference exemplified Wu’s fit there.

“The one district in the country that might get that is one where Intel is the biggest employer,” he said. “There are a lot of … nerds. ‘Trek’ geeks. And Wu doesn’t take anything for granted.”

Since coming to Congress in 1998, Wu has won re-election by comfortable margins, and he faced no Republican opposition at all in 2008. Challenging Wu this year is Rob Cornilles, a business consultant who has made a career of helping the front offices of professional sports teams run their organizations more efficiently.

Cornilles had raised more than $600,000 and had more than $250,000 in the bank at the end of June. By that point, Wu had taken in nearly $1 million and had more than $600,000 on hand.

With Wu’s 12 years in Washington, the National Republican Congressional Committee has attacked him for losing touch with his district. The committee distributed a picture of Wu sitting at a Capitol Hill coffee shop late last month in the middle of the Congressional recess.

“The choice is clear for Oregonians,” NRCC spokeswoman Joanna Burgos said, adding that Wu is “an entrenched Democrat who does not call Oregon home and does not engage with or fight for the best interests of his constituents.”

Mark Wiener, a Democratic consultant who is working with Schrader, said the 5th district has far more competitive potential than Wu’s district.

“Wu is not seen as particularly vulnerable, and it really hasn’t exhibited the hallmarks of a knock-down, drag-out fight,” Wiener said. “The 5th is much more on people’s radar and is a swingier district.”

State Rep. Scott Bruun, Schrader’s challenger, helped that conversation along when his campaign released an internal poll last month showing him with a 3-point lead. Democrats roundly criticized the poll’s methodology, and subsequent polling has found Schrader ahead by 8 to 11 points. He is polling at less than 50 percent though, which is dangerous territory for an incumbent.

The metrics of the district make it easy to picture a GOP pickup. Obama won the 1st district with 61 percent in 2008, but he carried the 5th, which Bush won twice, with 54 percent. And the voter registration edge for Democrats is much smaller at 19,000.

“It’s Schrader’s first re-election, and it’s a cranky time,” Wiener said. “It’s a swingy district that has gone Democratic pretty continuously for a while. But he is working like a dog to make sure it stays that way.”

The historically Republican Williamette Valley has been marginal for the past few decades and changed hands relatively often. But thanks in part to several lackluster GOP challenges, former Democratic Rep. Darlene Hooley represented the district for 12 years after ousting then-Rep. Jim Bunn in 1996. Bunn, a Republican, took over the seat in 1994 from retiring Democratic Rep. Michael Kopetski, who had knocked off Republican Rep. Denny Smith four years earlier.

Schrader, a Blue Dog, plays up his work on the Agriculture and Small Business committees. He was born and raised in New England before settling with his wife on an Oregon farm and opening up two veterinary clinics. Schrader also served more than 10 years in the state Legislature.

The Bruun campaign wants to focus on Schrader’s propensity to vote with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on policies its says drive up the deficit. Bruun, a fifth-generation Oregonian, works for an investment firm and is serving his third term in the state Legislature.

A Bruun spokeswoman said the campaign expects to run ads on TV and radio, but it recognizes it will be outspent by Democrats. Bruun had less than $200,000 through the end of June. Schrader had more than $900,000 but was carrying nearly $250,000 in debt. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has reserved significant TV airtime in Portland for the fall.

“Schrader is not the most charismatic guy,” Adams said. “He’s someone people know, but he’s not going to win a bunch of votes on his charisma.”

But Ross said Schrader’s Republican opponent could be hurt by his politics.

“Bruun is pretty conservative,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to play that great with the nonaffiliated voters. … Schrader has a real independent streak. He’s real well-known and well-liked.”

Consultants in the state said two factors to keep in mind when watching both districts are the competitive gubernatorial election and the state’s 100 percent vote-by-mail system.

Republican Chris Dudley, who once guarded the hoop for the Portland Trail Blazers, has held a small lead in most polling against former Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber in the gubernatorial race. Republicans in the state believe this could help drive GOP turnout, boosting the chances of downballot Republicans.

While Republicans generally vote at higher rates, Democrats edged the GOP in turnout percentage in 2008. Oregon Democrats hope the vote-by-mail system helps stem some of their challenges this cycle: a midterm election when turnout historically dips with polls showing Republicans more enthusiastic about voting.

“In a year when you’re worried about Democrats showing up,” Ross said, “it’s a lot easier to show up.”