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OR Senate 7: The partisan box

Eugene City ClubOn his campaign website, Jim Torrey, the Republican nominee for the Senate in district 7, has posted four video/television spots. The one that gets the most attention is the last, “Outside the box,” an animated spot. It shows (a younger and slimmer) Torrey being chased by a woman (his Democratic opponent, incumbent Vicki Walker) who is “trying to put him in a partisan box. But Jim has always thought outside the box. Jim leaves party politics at the door.”

Weren’t left at the door today, though, when Torrey met Walker for their big debate, at the City Club of Eugene. Not that that was Torrey’s doing, or that he wanted it.

The debate made three things clear. One is why Torrey, twice elected mayor of Eugene, is such a well-regarded political figure in town, and beyond. A second is that Walker is no pushover. The third, which we’re starting to think may be decisive in this close and pivotal race, is that partisan considerations may prove decisive in the outcome – to Torrey’s detriment.

Jim TorreyFirst to Torrey: The man has solid campaign skills. the City Club debate drew a crowd of upwards of 300 (well above the norm, organizers told us), and Torrey worked it like a pro, doing his best to leave no hand unshaken and no face ungreeted. His speech has just enough rumble in it to give it an authoritative edge, but he comes off as friendly and has a fine knack for knowing when to use his sense of humor. As a public speaker and figure, he seems completely comfortable. Republicans have in the past talked him up as a prospect for higher office, and it’s no hard to see why, or why he won his terms as mayor and was considered a given for a third term if he’d wanted it.

Vicki WalkerWalker, by comparison, is a little stiff, more tentative as a crowd worker and not quite the natural crowd pleaser. But she displayed, once the debate started, a sound capacity for armor-plating her record and launching truly sharp jabs at Torrey – better than he did at her.

In the ask-your-opponent-a-question phase, Torrey asked about Walker’s failure to inform the Lane County commission about her objections to a proposed ballot issue for public safety funding, before they went public with it. His point (of doing what one can to work with others) was legitimate enough, but it was hardly a silver bullet. And elsewhere – starting with her opening remarks – Walker rattled off a long list of legislative and related accomplishments, and said that almost 60 bills she worked on in the last session had passed. At the debate’s end, she noted that Torrey had not once in the entire debate criticized her work as a legislator – and that was true, at least directly. It was a startling omission, and a fundamental gap: The first thing a challenger always has to do in taking on an incumbent is to explain (nicely preferably, but still clearly) why the incumbent has to be fired. Torrey never did.

Her question to him was more telling and wickedly sharp, even if there was no explicit criticism at all in it. She asked: You emphasize your independence but, although the Oregon Senate now has two independents in its ranks, you’re running as a Republican. Why?

Walker’s advocates must smell blood on this point, because the question of partisan identity kept recurring through the rest of the debate – what you think of your party’s platform, what about your party you disagree with, on and on. Running in Democratic Eugene, Walker breezed through the questions. But Torrey had a devil of a time with them.

His core answer to why he was running as a Republican, the one that came closest to satisfying, was its support of entrepreneurialism. Beyond that, he sounded like a Democrat running in Idaho: we need two parties, two points of view, my wife is a Democrat, we need to reach across the aisle. All the things you say when, metaphorically and practically, you’re a Democrat in Idaho.

(He glitched himself at one point and didn’t seem to catch it, though some in the crowd did. Asked how he would be distinctive from other Republicans, Torrey replied that he would be “in that I’m an independent thinker and make decisions based on common sense.”)

He went on to define himself as a Republican in the mold of (former governor and senator) Mark Hatfield, University of Oregon President Dave Frohnmayer, and moderate Republican Senator Frank Morse of Corvallis, and a few others. But excepting Morse, all of the Republican figures he named were politicians of the past. Frohnmayer may be the most influential figure in Eugene but he seems unlikely to return to elective politics, and Walker acidly noted that she hasn’t “even seen the ghost of Mark Hatfield in the eight years” she’s been at the statehouse. And Torrey didn’t name Senator Gordon Smith or his party’s gubernatorial nominee Ron Saxton – did not even name-check them for any reason at any point.

And you could almost see the blood being drawn when Walker mentioned that Torrey had contributed the maximum amount to George W. Bush’s campaign for president in 2004. Torrey returned to the point even after the subject had moved on, seemingly trying to patch the hole in the balloon where air was leaking out. Then it got worse, when someone asked the candidates about Iraq. Torrey said he had supported the war when it started and still thought it makes us safer. Walker said it was a disaster, a decision “made by one man who wanted to bully the world” – and the crowd ate it up.

On many of the substantive issues, on education, health and other matters, the two actually weren’t all that far apart, using different verbiage and frames to suggest answers that were not far off. Torrey’s and Walker’s world views are very different, and they would be quite distinct senators, but Torrey’s votes might not be radically different on a quite a few matters, if his City Club debate is an indication.

But he may have picked the wrong year to leave his nonpartisan candidacies for mayor behind, and run for the legislature as a Republican. For the moment, Walker seems to be boxing him in.

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