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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.

While the narrative of the race and a lackluster opponent have given Cornilles a slight wind at his back, that’s not to say he deserves no credit for putting a seemingly impossible-to-win seat into serious contention.

Cornilles has a biography that seems tailor-made for crafting a Republican message. In 1995, he and his wife started a consulting business for professional sports franchises in their spare bedroom that now employs some 60 people. He serves on the board of directors of the Special Olympics of Oregon, the Oregon League of Minority Voters, and the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Centers Foundation, which works to provide health care for low-income Oregonians.

To emphasize free trade, Cornilles’s honorary campaign chairman is Oregon’s last Republican governor, Vic Atiyeh, whose efforts at establishing trade links between Oregon and Asia are responsible for many of the jobs in the 1st District. Cornilles has lived and worked in Japan and speaks the language, and his wife is the granddaughter of a Chinese diplomat. He points to his business experience and cultural ties when pledging to “champion free trade.”

He’s been campaigning for the seat off and on since 2009, and during that time has honed his message to focus almost exclusively on the economy, taxes, and job creation. At 9.1 percent, unemployment is above the national average—and much worse in certain regions, particularly those dependent on tourism. (Consequently, President Obama has a surprisingly low approval rating, at 48 percent, for such a solidly Democratic district.)

While the rest of the GOP is beset by Tea Party fervor, Cornilles has tried to remain above the fray, publicly identifying himself with the moderate Republicans of Oregon’s past. In his speech to the ladies’ luncheon, he invoked many of the state’s GOP greats, such as Senator Mark Hatfield and governors Tom McCall and Atiyeh, who are still thought of warmly even as the Portland metro area has pushed the state to the left. He doesn’t mention a single Republican not identified with Oregon.

In electoral terms, identifying with local heroes seems like a canny strategy. Democrats tried for months to brand him as the “original Tea Party candidate,” but he’s beaten self-proclaimed Tea Party candidates in the last two primaries, including the current chair of the Oregon Tea Party. The Oregonian has gone so far as to call out the Democrats for wrongly trying to portray him as a Tea Party candidate.

So how conservative is he? Asked what factor social issues play in the race, Cornilles says, “They don’t really come up”—though it’s hard to believe that’s the case with Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List dumping money into the race against him.

It might not be to Cornilles’s advantage to make them an issue as a Republican running in a Democratic district, but his biography says something about his values. Like Mitt Romney, he’s a practicing Mormon. He’s married to his high school sweetheart and has three sons, aged 22, 18, and 15. The oldest two are Eagle Scouts and the youngest is working on it.

A Cornilles victory could say little about national Republican trends and momentum. It might just be a case of a polished and experienced candidate crafting the right message for his district.

Observers have pointed to the special election in New York’s 9th District last fall, previously held by scandal-plagued Democrat Anthony Weiner. In that race, the one-two punch of a notorious congressional resignation and a poor Democratic replacement candidate—both present in Oregon’s 1st District—led to a shocking upset by Republican Bob Turner. It’s also worth noting that the last time the seat was open, during Wu’s first election in 1998, Republican Molly Bordonaro captured a respectable 47 percent of the vote.

While those are hopeful portents, it’s hard not to see Cornilles as the underdog. Still, his candidacy has exceeded expectations thus far. Democrats should be nervous that for the first time in 37 years, it could be lights out for them in Oregon’s 1st Congressional District.

Mark Hemingway is online editor of The Weekly Standard.

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