GOP seeks key to Wyden fortress

Republicans vow they'll challenge the popular incumbent

Oregon Republicans will gather for their annual Dorchester Conference this weekend without a challenger for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, the Democratic incumbent.

Wyden is quietly heading toward the 2004 election with more than $1 million in the bank. He's left footprints through every county in the state and carries a reputation for bipartisanship only made stronger by Republican Sen. Gordon Smith's re-election campaign last year.

The annual GOP gathering in Seaside will give the party faithful a chance to cheer Smith's re-election, celebrate their control of the state House and figure out how President Bush can win Oregon next year.

Even more important, they'll look at how to enhance the slim roster of Republicans elected statewide.

Republicans vow that a qualified candidate will take Wyden on. But most frontline Republicans are staying away from the race, including Ron Saxton, Greg Walden, Jack Roberts and Kevin Mannix.

'Not only is there no A list,' one Republican said, 'but there's no B list or C list.'

Wyden is keeping a low profile. 'I'm just going to work hard at my job,' he said last week in Oregon City.

So far, Wyden has only a modest campaign organization, said Josh Kardon, his chief of staff, with two fund raisers, a part-time accountant and one person making sure he complies with campaign laws. But he's preparing for a tough, competitive race, especially after watching the heated campaign between Smith and Democrat Bill Bradbury last year.

'We'll run our operation as if Gordon Smith is going to get cloned,' Kardon said.

Republicans say Wyden will be a formidable opponent. They respect his good relations with the business community, his staff, his bipartisan work with Smith and his dogged determination to keep his promise to visit every Oregon county every year.

'So far, he has been working well with Sen. Gordon Smith in a bipartisan manner,' said John Lim, who won 33 percent of the vote against Wyden in 1998. 'I don't believe I'd have a reasonable chance to beat him. It could be a waste of time, money and energy, and I'd rather concentrate on something I can accomplish.'

A costly race

The time, money and energy required to challenge an incumbent are daunting.

Smith spent $6.2 million last year to defeat Bradbury, who spent $2 million. Raising that kind of money is harder in a federal race, with its $2,000 contribution limit, than in a state race where there are no limits. Any candidate mounting a serious challenge needs to start raising money early, political strategists say, and the primary is 15 months away.

'You're not going to get anyone with any real political clout,' said Roberts, the former state labor commissioner and a 2002 gubernatorial candidate. 'Unless something drastic changes between now and the end of the year, I don't see him having any substantial opposition.'

Mannix, who narrowly lost the governor's race last year to Ted Kulongoski, is now the state Republican chairman. He said he's not interested in running himself but will find a good candidate.

'My job as party chairman is to make sure every incumbent Democrat faces a credible Republican challenger, and I'll make sure Ron Wyden has a credible Republican challenger,' Mannix said. 'Any party worth its salt should have someone out there.'

Talk about the 2004 Senate race will pick up after the 2003 Legislature winds up, Mannix said, and he expects to see some lawmakers running.

Former state Rep. Ron Sunseri of Gresham said he has been asked to consider making the race but hasn't made a decision yet. Sunseri would win the support of abortion opponents and Second Amendment activists, both critical GOP constituencies.

Keeping up with counties

Wyden didn't show such political invulnerability in his first statewide campaign. In the January 1996 special Senate election, he won just eight of Oregon's 36 counties but defeated Smith by 18,220 votes. Just two years later, he won his own full term by winning 35 counties with a plurality of 304,686 votes.

In between the two elections Ñ and ever since Ñ Wyden, from Portland, has tended carefully to rural Oregon. He has offices in Bend, Salem, Eugene, Medford and LaGrande and made good on his promise to visit every county at least once every year.

'He's done a good job around the state, shoring up the rural areas where he was weak the first time,' Roberts said.

Joint town-hall meetings held by Smith and Wyden have paid off for both. During his campaign last year, Smith frequently pointed to his bipartisan work with Wyden, and now it's Wyden's turn to enjoy the political benefits.

'There's a growing feeling on the part of the money people that this team of Wyden and Smith is working,' Roberts said. 'They like the fact that whichever party has control of the Senate, we have someone there.'

They steer clear of each other's campaigns. Last year, Wyden endorsed Bill Bradbury against Smith but wasn't a visible presence in the campaign and didn't criticize Smith. Aides expect Smith to show the same deference to Wyden next year.

'You have this tacit agreement that you speak no evil of your fellow incumbent,' said Russell Dondero, a professor of political science at Pacific University in Forest Grove. 'That makes it prohibitively difficult for any Republican to get any traction against Ron Wyden.'

Whomever the Republicans run shouldn't expect an enormous amount of assistance from the national party. Republicans see several ripe opportunities to pick up Senate seats next year Ñ California, Washington, Arkansas and Nevada among them Ñ but Oregon's not high on their list of potentially vulnerable Democratic seats.

Contact Don Hamilton at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..