Democrats hold seat, results and demographics suggest they will in the future
by: Christopher Onstott Democratic state senator Suzanne Bonamici celebrates her victory over Republican businessman Rob Cornilles in the U.S. House of Representatives special election for Oregon’s 1st Congressional District at the Eco Trust building in Northwest Portland Tuesday, Jan. 31.

Suzanne Bonamici was sworn in as Oregon's newest member of Congress Tuesday, filling the seat left vacant by David Wu in July after he resigned amid a sex scandal.

The official proceedings mark a whirlwind week for Bonamici, after she decisively won last Tuesday's special election - earning 54 percent of the vote - defeating Republican Rob Cornilles of Tualatin, Libertarian James Foster and Progressive Party candidate Steven Reynolds.

While Bonamici's victory left Democrats rejoicing, it put Republicans in a tough spot. If a Republican like Rob Cornilles, willing to praise aspects of Obama's national agenda, can't win in the district, what Republican can?

'The turnout mirrored the party registration,' said Jim Moore, director of the Tom McCall center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University. 'Until a well-known moderate Republican comes along who can win 20 to 30 percent of the Democratic vote, the district will stay in the Democrats' hands.'

There are two stumbling blocks for Republicans in the 1st Congressional District, which stretches from downtown Portland to Astoria and includes all of Washington County.

First, Democrats hold a strong registration advantage of 15,000 voters over Republicans.

Secondly, issues like abortion are easy for Democrats to exploit in the district that is largely suburban or urban. Polling by SurveyUSA shows that 61 percent of likely voters in the district are pro-choice.

Early money advantage

for Bonamici

Bonamici, who served in the Oregon Senate from May 2008 to November 2011, and prior to that in the Oregon House, took in last week's election returns at a campaign reception held at the Ecotrust building in Northwest Portland.

'Voters are eager to have someone represent them who cares deeply about middle-class families struggling to make ends meet (who are) concerned about the cost of and access to heath care and someone to stand up to powerful interests, for those who deserve to have their voices heard,' Bonamici said during her victory speech.

'The 1st Congressional District is so full of potential. It's a crucial and dynamic part of the state. In that representation, I will always put people before politics. In the end, Oregonians know I will stand up for them.'

Bonamici's election was celebrated by members of EMILY's List, the nation's largest resource for women in politics. The political action group has provided funding and help to three women who were victorious in their special elections.

'From day one, EMILY's List has stood with Suzanne and we could not be prouder of the race she ran or her victory tonight,' said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY's List.

It was with early contributions from EMILY's List that Bonamici was able to pull ahead of her rivals in a competitive Democratic primary season last year. Television advertising helped set Bonamici apart from her Democratic opponents State Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian and State Rep. Brad Witt.

And during the general election, Bonamici's campaign was aided by national democratic political groups, who spent at least $1.3 million to bolster the roughly $1 million bankroll her campaign raised.

Little national interest in Cornilles campaign

Cornilles had trouble raising national money. While his campaign also raised roughly $1 million, he didn't manage to pull significant support from the national Republican congressional campaigns.

In his concession speech, Cornilles highlighted his frustration with reports in the media, touted by his political opponents, that scrutinized his company's history of 'job creation.'

'Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that those who opposed me found it necessary to try and undo all the good that small businesses like mine accomplish in our state,' Cornilles said.

Cornilles spent the last half year in the crosshairs of the Democratic Party of Oregon and national groups like Planned Parenthood, who underlined his pro-life stance and tried to paint him as a 'Tea Party' Republican.

Those efforts may have worked, as Cornilles' results indicate he didn't manage to draw crossover votes in the district, where Democrats hold a 15,000 vote advantage over Republicans.

Bonamici carried all counties in the 1st Congressional District but Yamhill County, where Cornilles, earned 12,492 votes to Bonamici's 10,670. But in the two most populous counties in the district, Bonamici took a commanding share of the vote. In Washington County, Bonamici earned 68,031 votes, 13,681 more than Cornilles. In Multnomah County, Bonamici earned 20,692, nearly four times Cornilles' total.

Democratic stronghold?

Democrats saw a surge of registrations during the lead up to the 2008 election of Barack Obama. Since then, it's become more and more difficult for Republican candidates to win high-profile elections in the state.

Redistricting, overseen last year by Bonamici and Hillsboro Republican Shawn Lindsay, will reduce the Democratic advantage slightly, but isn't expected to make the district significantly more competitive.

'Since the big increase in Democratic registration came in 2008 with the Obama election, we have evidence that those voters are staying active,' Moore said. 'Good news for Democrats, daunting news for Republicans.'

While the Democratic Party of Oregon focused on complaints about Cornilles' company from former interns (first reported by the News-Times in 2010), Planned Parenthood's political action committee and EMILY's List joined forces to send out mailers and run television ads focusing on abortion rights.

And while the Oregon Republican Party tried to paint Bonamici as soft on crime and overly liberal, that didn't seem to corral voters.

Those themes won't be going away, however.

'The national campaign themes worked very well for the Democrats. They will continue to use them in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest,' Moore said. 'The national campaign themes did not move the necessary voters for the Republicans. They will also continue to use them in Oregon.'

Bonamici will be up for reelection in the fall, and her campaign will likely begin in May (she hasn't announced her plan to run, but few expect her to bow out).

That means voters in the district should get used to the national campaign messaging.

'Broad message - our local campaigns have lost their local touch when they become important to national players. We the voters have lost a chance for a real conversation with the candidates,' Moore said.

Where Republicans could turn next for a candidate is hard to say. Bruce Starr, a popular Republican from Hillsboro has thought about running for congress in the past and has ruled it out. He's currently running for state labor commissioner.

While Cornilles won't rule out another run, he said he didn't think it was likely that he would dive into politics again and take a third stab at the seat.

'It's been almost 2 and a half years now that I've been running for congress,' Cornilles told KPAM 860. 'I recognize that the will of the voters is something you have to pay very close attention to.'

Moore said Republican's chances in the district may hinge more on the fortunes of Obama - and the national Republican Party - than their advantages at home.

'If the political landscape begins to look like a Republican sweep in November, a relatively strong GOP candidate has a shot in this district,' Moore said. 'At this point there are very few other options for the Republicans. State legislators just are not very well known, even in their own districts.'

- Community Newspapers reporters Shannon Wells, Alana Kansaku-Sarmiento

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