5th District hopefuls had to sprint from the start
Hooley's departure left wide-open field, short time frame
Until February, the script for Oregon's 5th 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 Mike Erickson, a Lake Oswego businessman.
But Hooley's surprise withdrawal from the race Feb. 7 turned it into one of the nation's hottest congressional bouts, with wide-open contests in the Democratic and Republican May 20 primaries.
Former Salem lawmaker Kevin Mannix, a four-time candidate for governor and attorney general, jumped into the Republican fray against Erickson, chief executive of a transportation services company.
State Sen. 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 5th Congressional District stretches from Southwest Portland to Corvallis and includes most of Clackamas County and all of Marion and Polk counties, as well as Tillamook and Lincoln counties on the coast.
The Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C., newsletter that analyzes elections, rates it as one of only 15 'tossup' contests out of 435 U.S. 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 announced she'd leave Congress after finishing her term.
'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 5th District usually fields Oregon's most competitive congressional race, because Republicans and Democrats are closely matched in voter registration. But Democrats 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.
GOP race has familiar faces
Mannix is a household name in much of the district and polled well in his Salem-area stronghold during four statewide races. Mannix also counts on the active support of Oregon Right to Life, an influential force in GOP primaries.
He is known as a scrappy campaigner. Yet Mannix brings baggage from four statewide defeats and past controversies stemming from his handling of money for the state GOP and his own campaigns, and his reliance on campaign funding from quirky Nevada multimillionaire Loren Parks.
'I think it's going to be a referendum on Kevin Mannix,' said Ed Dover, a political scientist at Western Oregon University.
Dover, who moderated a 2006 campaign debate at the campus, termed Erickson's performance a 'disaster,' because he showed weak command of federal issues.
'Erickson's going to have to do better than he did last time,' Dover said. 'I think it's Mannix's to lose.'
But 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 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, rising to become state party chairman.
Mannix came close to defeating Ted Kulongoski in the 2002 governor's race but fared poorly in the 2006 race.
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 replace lost federal payments to timber-dependent counties, Mannix said, observing that getting the county payments extended each year by Congress has become a tough sell.
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.
He won election as Portland State University student body president in 1985 and re-election in 1986 but was disqualified for his second term, for altering a letter from then-Gov. Neil Goldschmidt for use as an implied endorsement.
Fred Meyer officials accused Erickson of exaggerating his work for the company during his unsuccessful 1988 House race. Erickson was disqualified from a 1990 Beaverton City Council bid when he couldn't verify that he lived in the city.
In the current race, Oregon Right to Life criticized Erickson's campaign postcards for implying he has the group's endorsement.
Dems differ on who suits area
Schrader has been a powerful player in Salem for several years, controlling the state purse strings as co-chairman of the joint budget committee. Many view his tightfisted reputation, moderate political views and small-business experience as well-suited for the district's politics.
But Schrader's blunt talk and spending decisions have created some detractors, including higher education officials. Schrader inherited a large sum from his grandfather, which gives him a potential campaign spending edge against Marks.
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, 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 legislative Democrats, and faulted his votes on minimum-wage bills and other labor issues.
'I believe we shouldn't run a candidate in this district who's a look-alike 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.
Marks' criticisms are off-base, Schrader said, noting that he's the one getting pivotal labor union 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.'
Campaign finances (as of March 31)
• Steve Marks
Money raised: $26,783
Cash on hand: $18,042
• Kurt Schrader
Money raised: $56,245
Cash on hand: $56,210 (includes $30,000 loan from candidate)
• Also in race
Andrew Foster, of Corvallis, a market researcher and videographer with Ethos Market Research
Nancy Moran, of Oregon City, social worker for senior citizens and as conservator of estates
Richard Nathe, a Salem retiree who last worked for Oregon Department of Transportation
• Mike Erickson
Money raised: $634,144
Cash on hand: $341,420 (includes $341,420 loan from candidate)
• Kevin Mannix
Money raised: $109,444
Cash on hand: $66,778
• Also in race
Richard 'R.J.' Wilson, a Salem dance instructor