The Magazine

The Longshot

Can a Republican win a congressional seat in Portland, Oregon?

Jan 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 19 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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Lake Oswego, Oregon

Photo of Rob Cornilles

Rob Cornilles

About 20 minutes into the speech by Rob Cornilles, the Republican candidate in the special election for Oregon’s 1st Congressional District on January 31, the power went out.

There was a loud popping sound from his microphone, and the room went dark. The Lake Oswego Republican Women’s Luncheon gasped, but Cornilles forged on with the Q&A. After the waitstaff distributed candles to each table, he cracked a joke about having to wrap up his speech before they “bring out the s’mores.” The women roared with laughter.

Oregon’s 1st Congressional District comprises the northwest corner of the state, extending from the coast and encompassing some of the major Portland suburbs, as well as a chunk of the city itself. Portland’s reputation as a bastion of liberalism is well deserved, and consequently a Republican hasn’t held this seat in 37 years. But there’s a growing feeling that Cornilles might pull off a stunning upset at the end of this month.

Earlier this week the Cornilles campaign released the results of an internal poll that showed him down only 4 points against Democratic state legislator Suzanne Bonamici. Normally, when a campaign that’s trailing releases an internal poll showing such a favorable result, it is dismissed as a stunt.

But there’s ample evidence that Democrats are also seeing surprising support for Cornilles. With less than two weeks to go, national Democrats have dumped more than $1 million into the race, blanketing Portland’s airwaves with attack ads against Cornilles. The money is coming from Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Nancy Pelosi’s super-PAC, among others. The National Republican Congressional Committee has countered with its own, more modest, $85,000 ad buy.

Democrats haven’t done much to engender good will in this race. Cornilles is running to replace disgraced Democrat David Wu, who resigned last year after the Oregonian newspaper reported that he had an “aggressive, unwanted sexual encounter” with the teenage daughter of one of his donors. Wu stepped down amid a flurry of erratic behavior that culminated in an infamous photo circulating on the Internet of the congressman posing in a tiger costume. Rumors of his alleged problems with pills and alcohol had been swirling back in Oregon long before they became national news. There’s a general feeling among voters that the Democratic party had been covering for Wu for some time.

Making matters worse, Cornilles’s opponent, Suzanne Bonamici, is the wife of David Wu’s personal lawyer. When the Oregonian reported in 2004 that Wu had been credibly accused of rape while an undergraduate at Stanford, it was Bonamici’s husband who threatened to sue the newspaper and its source. Though Wu was reelected multiple times after that story broke, the more recent sexual assault allegation has many Oregon voters wishing they hadn’t given him the benefit of the doubt.

Apart from any role her husband might have had in defending Wu, Bonamici has not done herself any favors on the stump. She’s decried the act of independent groups spending money on campaign ads and railed about the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. But on public radio with Cornilles last week, she refused to tell the independent groups running ads against Cornilles on her behalf to stop when pressed. In response to Bonamici, a spokeswoman for the Center for Responsive Politics dryly noted, “there is nothing wrong” with a candidate publicly appealing to independent expenditure groups to stop.

She’s also spooked the business community. Even the Oregonian editorial endorsing Bonamici lamented that she was “excruciatingly cautious; it took her months, and the end of the primary campaign, to decide she was actually for the U.S.-Korea trade agreement, which by that time had already passed.”

The 1st District is home to some of Oregon’s biggest and most prestigious employers, such as Intel, Nike, and Columbia Sportswear. The Brookings Institution estimates that 268,000 jobs in the Portland area are dependent on trade, and as such, area employers are wary of Bonamici. Her tepid support for free trade stands in sharp contrast to other Oregon Democrats.

As a result, the business community is much more receptive toward Cornilles today than when he ran against Wu for the seat in 2010 and lost by 13 points. “Intel never had me back to visit with their employees the first time I ran, but this time around they were eager to have me back because with the free trade agreements late last year [Bonamici] just had her finger in the wind the whole time,” Cornilles told me last week.

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