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Bonamici, Cornilles battle for CD1

Race between GOP, Democratic candidate heating up a week after results from primary
by: Christian Gaston Meridith Wood Smith, chair of the Democratic Party of Oregon, waited with U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer for Suzanne Bonamici while U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader met with constituents in the crowd at a Bonamici campaign stop at Portland State University last Thursday.

It was early last Tuesday night when it became clear that State Sen. Suzanne Bonamici and Tualatin businessman Rob Cornilles will face each other in a Jan. 31 special election to replace David Wu in Oregon's 1st Congressional District.

And it was early Thursday morning, when campaigns for Bonamici and Cornilles both chided the other for going negative, that it was clear the fight to represent Oregon in Congress would be a loud and noisy one.

Across the country, political handicappers will try to dissect any result in Oregon as a harbinger of things to come in the 2012 congressional races.

But an unusual political time table and a 50,000 voter registration edge for Democrats over Republicans in the district puts Bonamici ahead at this early stage, said Jim Moore, who teaches political science at Pacific University.

'Her issues click with the district, the D registration level is strong, and she is becoming a better candidate. She just needs to focus on turnout,' Moore said. 'Cornilles has to focus on changing voters' natural party identifications.'

That means getting every Republican vote in the district, turning independent voters on and catching some wayward Democrats. That's not an easy path to victory, but since 2008, electoral math has been bucked by shifting demographics and national trends in surprising ways.

Last week, however, Cornilles and Bonamici walked out of their party's primaries with strong numbers showing a unified base, even in the Democratic party primary, where three candidates holding elective office vied for the nomination.

Bonamici swept to victory Tuesday night with a huge lead over second-place finisher state Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian. Bonamici had 48,404 votes to Avakian's 16,415 votes. State Rep. Brad Witt finished with 5,870 votes. A handful of minor candidates gathered a few hundred votes.

On the Republican ballot, Cornilles gathered 39,500 votes, well ahead of the second-place finisher Jim Greenfield, who had 6,222 votes. Lisa Michaels finished with 5,597 votes.

By 9 p.m. Tuesday, Avakian had conceded, saying he wished Bonamici "luck and victory" in the January special election.

"We've run a positive race, focused on the issues that matter to voters: creating economic opportunity and fairness, revitalizing our public education system and ending the trade imbalance that is shipping jobs overseas," Avakian said. "It's been an honor talking with voters across Northwest Oregon. Even in these difficult times, it is incredibly heartening to hear from so many people, Democrats, Republicans and independents, who believe in this nation and want to do their part to restore it to greatness."

Bonamici's campaign manager Carol Butler said voters across the district responded to her candidate's message.

"It's very telling that the voters understood who she was and what she does," Butler said. "This is somebody who spent their entire career standing up for middle-class families and long before there was mortgage crises was fighting predatory lenders. I think she is exactly the right candidate for this point in time, and I think it's clear the voters saw that."

Bonamici brushed off questions about the national implications of the congressional race Tuesday night.

"This race is not about national politics," she said. "Washington County is not Washington, D.C. This election is about the people of the 1st District and who best can represent their interests in Congress. With every decision I make, I will always put what's best for this district first."

But at a press conference Thursday morning at Portland State University, Bonamici, flanked by Avakian, Witt and U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Kurt Schrader, all of the Democrats underlined the national issues that they hope define the race.

"The middle class wasn't created by accident," Bonamici said. "Today it isn't being threatened by accident."

Cornilles touts bipartisan endorsements, wants bipartisan votes

This is Cornilles' second run for the office. He lost in November 2010 to former Congressman David Wu, who resigned in August amid a sex scandal, triggering the special election now underway. Last year, Wu beat Cornilles, earning 54 percent of the vote to Cornilles' 42 percent. On Tuesday night, Cornilles told supporters he plans to do a few things differently.

"Now that we've taken the first step in changing the 1st District of Oregon, are you ready to change Washington, D.C., with me?" Cornilles asked supporters gathered for a party Tuesday night in his Beaverton campaign headquarters.

The crowd roared its approval, responding to Cornilles' exhortation with cheers.

"Everyone's got their work cut out for them, (making sure that) voters are well-educated about the two candidates," Cornilles said. "(My main concern) is that there may not be enough time for the voters to get to know me and realize what I can do to benefit this district. We have 84 days. I'll go anywhere, I'll do anything to communicate with voters. And when I say communicate, it's not just talking, but listening."

As far as a Republican's chances in a district that has Democrats to Congress for the past 36 years, Cornilles was optimistic.

"I think our chances are very good," he said. "I'm already getting bipartisan support. I would challenge Sen. Bonamici to tell us what Republicans are supporting her. I have Democrats who are supporting me, I have independents who are supporting me, and that's because people are tired of the same-old, same-old. They want to go a new direction in this district, not to mention this state."

Moore said Cornilles will need to push the image of him as a crossover Republican in the style of former U.S. Senator Mark O. Hatfield a Republican who served in the senate for 30 years and was lauded by Republicans and Democrats alike in August when he died.

"Unaffiliated voters and disaffected Ds. Unaffiliated [voters] broke for Rs in 2010, but obviously not enough for Cornilles." Moore said. "He has to have Ds who will switch. Look for him to press comparisons to Hatfield, stress that he is not in lockstep with Speaker Boehner (which he has already publicly done), and emphasize his neighborly roots in the district."

A harbinger of trends?

Moore said Bonamici's big lead in the fundraising race and Cornilles' name recognition helped carry the day for both candidates.

It's still too early to tell how the mood of voters will play out in the January special election, Moore said. If the anti-incumbent fervor prevails, Cornilles could benefit, he said.

"Cornilles has to hope that anti-incumbent mood (anti-Democratic in this case) lasts into January," Moore said. "The political dynamic will be quite different then. The Republican presidential race will dominate all media coverage. This House seat will either disappear in the blizzard of caucuses and primaries, or it will be seen as a harbinger of national trends. We can hope for the latter, but prepare for the former."

Moore said because ballots for the Jan. 31 special general election will be held after the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries are held, the GOP presidential field, a couple of scenarios could develop.

The first, Moore said, is that a more extreme presidential candidate takes the lead in the Republican race, leading to a backlash against the party like the one that spoiled the presidential hopes of Republican nominee Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election against Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson.

"That is bad for Cornilles - just being Republican will be problematic," Moore said.

Another scenario, could be one where the leading Republican candidate takes stands that Cornilles opposes. That could give him an opportunity to appeal the wavering Ds in the election, but would have consequences if he were elected.

"It may make it even harder for Cornilles in office if the Rs still have a majority in the House," Moore said.

Whoever the loser of the January election is however, could have another shot at going to congress. The deadline to file for the regular 2012 election is in March and the primary will be held in May. Either candidate could come back for another shot at the seat in May, forcing the newly minted incumbent to raise thousands to defend their seat during a presidential election.

"The November 2012 will be significantly different because the turnout will be much higher," Moore said. "If I lost by about 10 percent, I'd be back in for the regular election because the turnout could easily go from the mid-40 percent range to the mid-70 percent range. That's a lot of new voters who might respond to my message."

- Reporters Reed Jackson, Kevin Harden and Alana Kansaku-Sarmiento contributed to this news story.