An alternative thought on the OR 1st

Judging from news reports, blogs, comments and various sources, a prevailing view of how the Oregon 1st congressional district primaries will go – in about three weeks, ballots having just hit mailboxes.

On the Democratic side, state Senator Suzanne Bonamici is thought likely to win. She has and has spent more than her opponent, is in a one woman-two man contest – the men are state Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian and state Representative Brad Witt – in which the core of the men’s support is assumed to be labor, which they may split. The polling out so far also gives her a lead. On the Republican side, businessman Rob Cornilles is presumed to have a powerful lead and likely to win overwhelmingly. He has a campaign warchest comparable to Bonamici’s and far beyond any of the other Republicans, has a strong campaign organization in place with a skillfully-run campaign ready to re-up from just last year, and (owing to his 2010 contest) is clearly better known than the others.

And it may go exactly that way; the logic is reasonable. We’d not bet any money against it.

And yet … most election days have their surprises. There’s at least one alternative scenario out there too. If one or both parts of it does happen, remember: It wasn’t entirely unforeseeable.

Remember that we’re talking here, on the primary level, about a special election: For most voters, this one race will be all that’s on the ballot. (There are a few exceptions.) This primary contest hasn’t, for the most part, broken through to really widespread attention. You see not a large number of yard signs and such (more for Cornilles at this stage than anyone else), and talk of the race doesn’t seem to be in everyday chatter. Local political junkies follow the race, but most people in the 1st … probably not so much. All this taken together suggests low turnout, a turnout in which activists will probably have disproportionate influence.

Republican activists, in the last cycle or two, have been in large part Tea Party-type activists, or at least people for whom ideology is pre-eminent. Last year Cornilles ran as a John Boehner-type Republican, not part of the Tea Party group but close enough to it to make its members comfortable. In this year, though, he sounds a good deal different, taking a more moderate tack. In debate a week ago in Forest Grove, he was sharply criticized by two other Republicans for having abandoned the party’s ideas and – horrors! – sounding more like the Democrats at the debate than like his fellow Republicans. And at times, he did.

One of those Republicans, Jim Greenfield, does seem to have emerged as the flagship candidate for what we might call the Ideology Republicans – his take was a lot like what you’d hear from Tea Party Caucus Republicans in the U.S. House. He sounds harsh and limited if you’re not aligned with him, but he delivers tasty catnip if you are. He evidently has little money or organization. But this is a group with a strong, if informal, communications network. If it spreads in a serious way the word that Greenfield is the real deal and Cornilles is the Mitt Romney of the race – an analogy not hard to see, and which has already spread to a degree – there’s room here for an upset.

The situation is a more subtle on the Democratic side, where Bonamici is not so far ahead of Avakian in money. Excluding candidate loans to the campaign, the two have raised comparable money. The money is most key in buying TV spots, but in races like this, where there’s no significant attacking going on (and there isn’t), the ads have limited impact beyond introducing the candidates to the voters – and remember, a disproportionate number of special election voters already probably know them (and Avakian’s political record goes back more years than Bonamici’s, and has extended statewide, as hers has not). By several accounts, Avakian has a substantially larger and more active ground and volunteer effort.

One other factor could play in: Avakian has gone farther in using activist language and approaches, and in identifying himself with activists like the Occupy Portland group. That’s a judgement call, to be sure; both Bonamici and Witt also have been present at Occupy events and have been supportive. It’s a matter of tone as much as anything else. (His first TV ad was called, “Ticked off.”) But it seems clear, and it’s easy to imagine Avakian picking up a disproportionate part of the activist vote.

To reiterate, none of this is an argument that Bonamici and Cornilles won’t win. Just that, even though ballots are out, the race is hardly over yet.

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