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Central Willamette in the balance

Jackie WintersState Senator Jackie Winters, the Salem Republican, has quite a bit going for her as she seeks a second term this year (after two in the House). She’s a warm, engaging and smart candidate; she knows details and background without seeming overly wonkish. Her community service pushups are extensive and of long standing. Her district is mostly Republican, according to party registration at least (42.5% Republican, 34.5% Democratic). She lost a 2004 primary race for the U.S. House, but campaigned well – her reputation did not suffer.

And yet her run for re-election is worth closely monitoring this year. Her electoral strength has been less than overwhelming in the past. (She won in 2002 with just 54.4%, less than commanding for an incumbent legislator in a party-favorable district.) And this year, her Democratic opponent, announced yesterday, has the potential to be formidable.

This could be one of the most interesting, and impressive, contests in Oregon this year.

Oregon Senate District 10

Paul EvansPaul Evans is a teacher at Oregon State University and Western Oregon University and has a record of community organization service (including as a volunteeer fireman), but that’s not what makes him a bigger story. He fits loosely into the national story of the “fighting Dems,” candidates who recently served in the military and are running as Democrats. Evans was mayor of Monmouth, where he developed a record worth touting (and he does on his web site). In 2003 he quit – trading his role of mayor for that of Major – because as an officer in the Oregon National Guard he took off for Iraq, where he served a tour, after which he volunteered for a second tour in 2005. His military service is now over, but his still will impress, deeply.

One more thing – from early indications – makes Evans prospectively formidable: For whatever reason, he’s not going on the attack against Jackie Winters. Her name doesn’t appear (so far as we could find) on his web site. As for his reasons for running: “I grew up in Oregon when the ‘Oregon Story’ meant something special: Tom McCall taught us that Oregon meant good schools, clean water, fresh air, well-maintained roads, healthy citizens, and a shared belief that together, we can do better. We’re in desperate need of energy, leadership, and vision in the Capitol. That’s why I am preparing to run for the Oregon State Senate. I believe my life experiences and proven record of strong leadership will make a difference in the Legislature and move our state forward.” As a package, that could resonate.

If he wants to win, he eventually will have to explain to people why they should fire Jackie Winters, and that will be the trickiest thing he will have to do, because she is well liked and her record is both respectable and district-fitting. Challengers almost never beat incumbents without giving voters a reason for unseating the current job-holder.

But his apparent decision not to go hard after Winters, well liked as she is, was very smart.

District 10 is in a key transitional spot. Salem, once solidly Republican, gradually has become less so, and this district includes most of the southern and western (the Polk County west-of-Willamette) part of town. If there are more registered Rs than Ds here, the independents hold the balance of clout. And in usually-Republican Polk County, there may be some extra juice for a well-regarded local guy back home from Iraq. Central Willamette’s politics are in the swing here.

The district’s voters look to have two impressive choices for November, and one of the marquee legislative races in the state.

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