Two prominent candidates from each party are seeking the seat
Until February, the script for Oregon's Fifth Congressional District race appeared to be a ho-hum rerun of 2006. Democratic incumbent Darlene Hooley was widely expected to cruise to a seventh term in a rematch with Republican businessman Mike Erickson.
But Hooley's surprise pullout Feb. 7 turned it into one of the nation's hottest congressional races, with wide-open contests in the Democratic and Republican primaries.
Former Salem lawmaker Kevin Mannix, a four-time candidate for governor and attorney general, jumped into the Republican fray against Erickson, a transportation services entrepreneur from Lake Oswego.
State Senator Kurt Schrader, a Canby veterinarian and state budget chief, quickly entered the Democratic primary, and soon was joined by Steve Marks of Turner, the right-hand man to former Gov. John Kitzhaber.
The Fifth Congressional District stretches from Southwest Portland to Corvallis, including most of Clackamas County and all of Marion, Polk, Tillamook and Lincoln counties.
Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes elections, rates it as one of only 15 'tossup' contests out of 435 House races this year. The race also poses a rare Republican opportunity to pick up a Democrat-held seat this year, said Rothenberg political editor Nathan Gonzales, who grew up in the district.
The character and pace of the congressional race is unusual, because all but Erickson had to quickly assemble campaign teams after Hooley's surprise announcement that she wouldn't run.
'The key is going to be who can quickly raise money and spend it most effectively in a short amount of time to get themselves known,' Gonzales said.
The fifth district usually fields Oregon's most competitive congressional race, because Republicans and Democrats are closely matched in voter registration. But Democrats have erased Republicans' traditional voter-registration edge in the past few months, with a surge of new Democrats energized by the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama duel.
At the end of January, registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats 146,394 to 142,557. Two months later, that flipped, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans 149,377 to 145,692.
Mannix is a household name in much of the district, and showed that Marion and Polk counties remained a stronghold during his four statewide races. Mannix also counts on the active support of Oregon Right to Life, an influential force in GOP primaries. But he has been a lightning rod for controversy because of his socially conservative views, questionable campaign finances, and reliance on money from quirky Nevada multimillionaire Loren Parks.
'I think it's going to be a referendum on Kevin Mannix,' said Ed Dover, political scientist at Western Oregon University.
Erickson's performance in a 2006 debate at the Monmouth campus was 'a disaster,' Dover said. 'I think it's Mannix's to lose.'
Erickson built name recognition in the district after spending about $1.5 million of his own money in his 2006 loss to Hooley. He has already put in more than $340,000 of his own money this time.
National GOP leaders may prefer Erickson, because the party is lagging behind Democrats in national fundraising, Gonzales said. 'The national Republicans may not have the money to take advantage of this opportunity,' he said, without Erickson's deep pockets.
Mannix, starting as a Democrat, earned a reputation in the Legislature for submitting and passing more bills than most of his peers. He rose to statewide prominence by passing tough-on-crime initiatives, including Measure 11, which spurred a wave of prison-building in Oregon and, Mannix contends, a reduction in crime.
He proved too conservative to win the Democratic nomination for Oregon attorney general and switched to the Republicans, becoming such a convert that he rose to state party chairman.
Mannix came close to defeating Ted Kulongoski in the 2002 governor's race, but fared poorly in the 2006 GOP primary. Republicans seemed to tire of him during what amounted to his fourth losing bid for statewide office.
Mannix said Republicans who opposed his bid to run state government view his 'creative energy' as more of an asset in writing and passing laws.
'If they worry about me in an executive position because I can be aggressive,' Mannix said, 'they like me in a legislative position because I'm going to have to get others to agree to get things done.'
Mannix proposes letting Clackamas and other counties manage federal forest lands derived from the former 'O and C' railroad, thus boosting their revenues by increasing timber harvests. That would help the counties replace lost federal payments to timber-dependent counties, which Mannix said is getting to be a tough sell in Congress.
Erickson is gunning for Mannix by pointing to his votes on tax bills, many while Mannix was still a Democrat. 'My opponent voted 83 times for tax increases as a legislator,' Erickson said.
And he castigated Mannix for amassing a large debt while running the Oregon Republican Party.
Erickson also is stressing a hard-line position on immigration. 'If you solve the border problem you're going to solve a lot of our problems,' he said. 'We're spending over $100 billion a year just on illegals.'
Erickson achieved success after founding AFMS, which helps businesses negotiate better contracts with shippers. His company twice made Inc. Magazine's list of 500 fastest-growing businesses in the nation, and may do it again after record sales last year, Erickson said.
But Erickson's forays into politics have been less fruitful. Fred Meyer management accused Erickson of exaggerating his work for the company during his unsuccessful 1988 House race. Erickson was disqualified from a 1990 bid for Beaverton City Council when he couldn't verify he lived in the city. Oregon Right to Life criticized campaign postcards Erickson distributed early in the 2008 race.
'The spirit and the implication of the card was that we were endorsing him this time, and we're not,' said Gayle Atteberry, Oregon Right to Life executive director.
Schrader has been a powerful player in Salem for several years, controlling the state pursestrings as cochairman of the joint budget committee. Many view his tight-fisted reputation, moderate political views and small-business experience as well-suited for the district's politics. Schrader also inherited a large sum from his grandfather, which gives him a potential campaign-finance edge against Marks.
'The money is important if Schrader actually has it,' Dover said. Schrader isn't well-known outside his home base, Dover said. But Marks has never run for office before, and started out with even less name recognition.
Marks has operated largely behind the scenes to forge policies and craft budgets for Kitzhaber, serving as his chief policy adviser dating back to Kitzhaber's service as Senate president. Marks was instrumental in formulating and passing Kitzhaber's community corrections and juvenile services plans as governor, among others.
Marks is hoping to convince Democrats that he's the true liberal in the race. He said Schrader compiled one of the more conservative voting records among Democrats in the Legislature, and singled him out for votes against working people.
'I believe we shouldn't run a candidate in this district who's a lookalike with a Republican,' Marks said. 'I think we could lose this district.'
Marks proposes a sustainable agriculture program at Oregon State University. He said he'd push Kitzhaber's universal health care plan in Congress. That angered the powerful AARP senior citizens lobby, because it would rework money now going to Medicare. Medicare 'will be gone for them if we don't fix it,' Marks said.
Schrader said his top priority would be ending the Iraq War, and investing money to pay down the national debt and buttress public services. He wants to trim federal farm subsidies and put more money into research to help Oregon's vegetable and seed industries.
'The farm bill ought to include recognition of specialty crops here in the Willamette Valley,' Schrader said.
Mark's criticisms are off-base, Schrader said, noting that he's the one getting pivotal labor endorsements.
'He hasn't had to stand up to the special interest groups in the public arena and cast tough votes,' Schrader said of Marks.
Schrader, who has already loaned his campaign $30,000, declined to say how much more of his own money he'll put into the race.
'I'm no Mike Erickson,' he said. 'I'm not going to get carried away.'