Al Hansen (speaking, right); Jim Weidner (left)
Two years ago, one of the hottest and closest (second closest in the state) legislative races in Oregon was in District 24, which takes in McMinnville and most of Yamhill County. It emerged as a close race toward the end. The district was widely considered to be close to a Republican lock the incumbent Republican had won substantially twice before, and no news was expected. Democrat Sal Peralta ran an exceptional race, though, and nearly took out Republican Donna Nelson.
The contest this time has not been looking so close. Al Hansen, a former McMinnville council member (with a long string of community pushups as well), is the Democrat this time, but his campaign has seemed not to match Peralta's. The contest hasn't much hit the statewide radar; Republican and Yamhill businessman Jim Weidner, who strongly won a seriously contested primary, has been presumed to hold a strong lead.
But maybe that was a write-off too soon. There has been no public polling in the race, but over the last week word began slipping out about polling by each party (state Democrats only lately apparently were convinced to throw in some money for that), and the results on both sides show the race tied - a much stronger showing for Hansen than most local observers would have expected. There seems to be little dispute about it, either: Wiedner told the McMinnville News-Register, "I'll go with, 'It's a dead heat.'"
What accounts for it?
There's the larger atmosphere hostile to Republicans, even in swing areas. There are structural factors, such as the year-round Democratic office that's been open in McMinnville, and the downtown Obama office, both encouraging Democratic organization. In District 24, voter registration at the end of September 2004 was: Democrats 10,942, Republicans 13,370 - Republican advantage of about 2,400. Two years later (when Peralta ran): Democrats 10,825, Republicans 13,461 - little change. But at the end of last month: Democrats 12,852, Republicans 13,423 - a Republican advantage of 571: The old gap cut by more than three-fourths. And finally, there's the nature of the candidates: Hansen has been a McMinnville civic fixture and activist for many years, with broad contacts, while Weidner is a relative newcomer with a support base more partisan and ideological - not a good cocktail for this year.
Keep watch on this race. It could flow either way.
ALSO To the southeast, but also in the Willamette Valley, keep watch on the House 18 race (generally, a large rural region east of the Salem area). We were earlier skeptical that third-time Democratic candidate (and nursery owner) Jim Gilbert of Molalla would get a lot farther than the last two times. But we're hearing that a confluence of factors may have put him in the lead over Republican Vic Gilliam, who was appointed to the seat in December 2006. Gilliam ran for the House twice before two, but back in the 80s, probably giving Gilbert a name ID edge. And consider the changes in voter identification: A Republican edge of 3,106 two years ago shrank to 2,320 at the end of last month.