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What's the Matter with Oregon?

Why hasn't Republican law professor Jim Huffman gained traction in his race against Senator Ron Wyden?

12:00 AM, Oct 16, 2010 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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What's the Matter with Oregon?

Republicans are making a serious play for two West Cost Senate seats this year: the race in Washington--where Dino Rossi is challenging Senator Patty Murray--is close, as is the race in California, where Carly Fiorina is challenging Senator Barbara Boxer. But what about Oregon? Unlike its neighbors to the north and south with toss-up Senate races, the state is in nearly everyone's "likely Democratic" column. Democratic senator Ron Wyden holds a 16-point lead over Republican challenger Jim Huffman, a law professor at Lewis & Clark law school, in the RealClearPolitics average of polls. "I literally don't know a soul who thinks Wyden is in trouble or will even have a close race," says Larry Sabato of UVA's Center for Politics.

But Wyden's large lead is somewhat befuddling--and perhaps misleading--considering the fact that Oregon is less Democratic than Washington or California. In fact, Oregon closely mirrors the voting pattern of Wisconsin--where Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold is tanking--in recent presidential elections. Though Oregon voted for Obama over McCain 57% to 40% in 2008, John Kerry narrowly carried the state 51% to 47% in 2004, the same year Wyden won reelection with 63% of the vote and Oregonians voted 57% to 43% in favor of a ban on gay marriage. In 2010, Republicans have a real shot at winning the governorship in Oregon, with GOP candidate Chris Dudley, a former basketball star, one point ahead of Democrat John Kitzhaber, the state's former governor.

So why isn't Republican Jim Huffman running as strong as Dudley, or Rossi, or Fiorina? "I think [Oregon Republicans] put all their marbles on Dudley," says Larry Sabato of UVA's Center for Politics. "A weak party like the Oregon Republicans almost can't afford to run multiple strong candidates in one year." Part of Huffman's problem is that a lot of voters still don't know who he is--a problem the pro-basektball player Dudley didn't and doesn't have. A Rasmussen poll conducted October 10 that put Wyden 16 points ahead of Huffman--52% to 36%--showed that 22% of voters don't have an opinion of Huffman. Only 7% don't have an opinion of Wyden.

“As a total outsider to the political process, name recognition remains our biggest challenge," Huffman told me during a phone interview on Thursday. Huffman is a serious and likeable candidate, if not a savvy politician (as of September 30, Huffman had raised just $800,000, with $435,000 in the bank). But the governor's race has dominated the media's attention, and voters are just starting to hear about Huffman. The campaign launched its second ad of the campaign season on Friday. "We’ll try to stay up on TV right through the election,” says Huffman. He may have a chance to make a favorable impression on the electorate when he debates Wyden next week, when voters will receive their ballots for the statewide mail-in election.

The bearded 65 year-old Huffman graduated from University of Chicago law school and went on to teach constitutional law at Lewis & Clark, serving as the school's dean from 1994 to 2006. As an academic, Huffman spent a significant amount of time working with conservative think tanks. "I was at Heritage for a year, worked with CATO, and worked with CEI, and Hoover,” he says. “I had thought about these issues for years, and I finally decided rather than sit back and pontificate about them … I’d just run for office and see if I couldn’t make a real difference.”

Huffman says he'd like to extend Bush tax cuts permanently, though “in the long run we need to reform in the direction of a flat tax.” On Obamacare, he'd like to "repeal it and start over," moving toward a more free market system. Oregon voters favor repealing Obamacare 50% to 46%, still a majority but lower than national support for repealing it.

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