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Independent,women voters may play key role

Each campaign will try to target their opponent as a 'yes' vote for the far left or far right.

Suzanne Bonamici and Rob Cornilles ran away in their respective 'special election' primaries last week.

In the Democratic primary, state Sen. Bonamici beat her closest opponent, Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, by a whopping 45 percent margin.

In the Republican primary, Cornilles, owner of a sports consulting firm and the losing GOP candidate in 2010 against former Congressman David Wu, beat his closest competitor, Jim Greenfield, a libertarian GOP conservative, by a 61 percent margin.

This sets Bonamici and Cornilles up for what should be a highly contested 'special' general election race ending January 31, 2012 to serve out the remainder of Wu's term. The open seat was created by Wu's resignation caused by his off the wall antics and alleged inappropriate behavior with the daughter of a campaign contributor in California.

The whole process will then be repeated in May and November 2012 by the usual primary and general election cycle during a high-stakes presidential election year.

Can anyone spell voter fatigue?

Whoever wins the special general election in January will then run as the incumbent congressman from the 1st District which currently stretches from the trendy streets of Northwest Portland, through Washington County's Silicon Forest and wine country, to the northern Oregon coast.

Since 1972 the district has been a Democratic stronghold under Les AuCoin, Elizabeth Furse and Wu.

But given the high stakes of the national political scene, both the January contest and the elections to follow will get the attention of both national political parties, PACs and independent expenditure groups who will flood money on both sides to capture this open seat.

Given the low turnout in the just past primary, partisans on each side will have reason to roll up their sleeves.

The biggest unknown in the January contest is who independent voters will support, now that they can join in the dance.

While Democrats hold a 50,000 voter registration advantage over Republicans in the district, but there are more than 110,000 independent voters who will be eligible for the January vote.

Bonamici and Cornilles will have to keep their base, appeal to those in their party who didn't vote for them and most importantly appeal to the cross over independent voters in a special election where voter turnout will be low.

Bonamici and Cornilles ran from the center within their primaries. Bonamici refused to take the anti-free trade route her opponents did. Cornilles refused to take the Grover Norquist 'no tax' pledge. The sniping has already begun.

You can expect more of the same, while each campaign tries to target their opponent as mere 'yes' votes for the far left and far right of their respective parties.

This political junkie can hardly wait to see the frenzied TV ads, hear the over-the-top radio spots and see the scary mailers.

Along with the independent vote, the other keys to the race in January will be the 'women's' vote which clearly got Bonamici in high gear with the Emily's List endorsement, and the role of Tea Party voters who Cornilles needs to attract without changing his moderate positioning as a self-described Hatfield/Packwood Republican.

And this all has to be done during a holiday season time when the voters are otherwise occupied.

In the special primary GOP voters appeared more energized with slightly higher turnout over Democrats despite what should have been a close, high attention race in the Democratic column.

This has to be good news for Cornilles who comes off as a very smooth, confident candidate. Bonamici may have to up her game face because she comes off as a cool candidate and at times a bit murky on the issues.

But right now the game plan for each candidate is to mend fences with their opponents, do some opposition research, dial for dollars from the national parties and PACS while doing this during the holiday season when thoughts of sugar plums are dancing in people's head, not 'oh, another darned election!'

The wild card factor given the sexist narrative of Wu's awkward exit: Will 2012 be the year of the women's vote?

If so, will the vote break along gender lines which favors Bonamici or will moderate Republican women vote for a candidate who appeals for the first time in decades to the Hatfield/Packwood wing of the GOP?

- Russ Dondero is Professor Emeritus, Department of Politics and Government, Pacific University. Read his blogs at russdondero.squarespace.com.