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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.

"I'm really a small-l libertarian, in most respects," says Huffman, noting that he supports civil unions. Though he personally thinks abortion should be legal, Huffman opposes federal funding and says, "I think the states ought to decide it. I think Roe is a bad decision. ... I think most left and right constitutional law professors in the country would agree with that.” On judges, Huffman says "elections have consequences," and he probably would have voted for Sotomayor and Kagan, as well as Alito and Roberts, though he prefers the latter two.

Huffman certainly has his work cut out for him with a little more than two weeks until the election. Wyden is a pretty popular senator. According to the Rasmussen poll, his favorability rating is 55% (38% very favorable, 17% somewhat favorable), and his unfavorable rating is 38% (14% somewhat, 24% very). "It would take a significant investment in all media markets to drive those negatives to where they need to be to make Wyden vulnerable," says one GOP strategist. True enough. Money spent on a long shot in Oregon can't be spent on races that are neck-and-neck--Washington, West Virginia, Nevada, Colorado, California, Illinois.

But if you're going to compete in the next tier of states, wouldn't it make sense to throw money at Oregon? Joe DioGuardi trails Kirsten Gillibrand by 16 points in New York, but it would cost much more to go on air in the Empire State. Linda McMahon already has enough money to saturate the airwaves in Connecticut. Christine O'Donnell, down 17.6 points in the RCP average but just 11 in Rasmussen, already has high name recognition and $4 million of her own money raised online.

It's unlikely that Huffman will beat Wyden, but in a wave election, it just might be worth taking a shot on Oregon.

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