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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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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