Democrat Suzanne Bonamici cruised to a double-digit victory over Republican Rob Cornilles in this week's special election to replace Oregon 1st District Congressman David Wu, who resigned last year amid a sex scandal.
Bonamici's convincing win didn't surprise many people, but explanations for her success don't always ring true. Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, dismiss the 1st District and Oregon generally as a liberal-leaning part of the Left Coast.
That generalization overlooks the fundamentals that have turned Oregon's 1st Congressional District into a Democratic bastion since 1974, when in the wake of the Watergate scandal Les AuCoin became the first Democrat in state history to capture the congressional seat since it was created in 1893.
Voters in the 1st District, which in the 1970s included Lake Oswego, Lincoln City and more rural areas than now, didn't suddenly change their political philosophy. What happened was the growth of a working Democratic majority, backed by an effective political apparatus that gets out voters who support Democrats.
The 1st District encompasses Northwest Oregon, generally from the Willamette River west to the coast and from the Columbia River south to Yamhill County. With the exception of Yamhill County, this is one of the most pro-choice parts of Oregon. Republican candidates, especially when they are males, who run with the endorsement of Right to Life, can face tough sledding holding onto Republican women and fiscally conservative, but socially liberal independent voters.
The district includes King City, one of the state's largest enclaves of senior citizens. King City is home to a lot Republicans who have deserted their party's candidate if he or she talked about dismantling Social Security or cutting Medicare.
Northwest Portland and the western suburbs are comfortable homes for many of Oregon's prominent and politically active gay and lesbian citizens.
The high technology industry in Oregon is rooted in Washington County, which has injected thousands of new residents, many from California, who have imported at least some of their progressive viewpoints, most notably on education quality and investment. Companies such as Nike and Intel also have introduced different perspectives on tax, trade and workforce issues, which Democrats have been able to address without running afoul of a strong union base in the district.
There are lots of college faculty members and students who live in the 1st District, including Portland State University, Portland Northwest College of Art, the Art Institute, Pacific University, Linfield College, George Fox University, Portland Community College and Clatsop Community College. The district also includes the Oregon Health and Sciences University, which is engaged in cutting-edge research in fields that have drawn opposition from Republican politicians.
These constituencies provide ample opportunity for enterprising, progressive Democrats to engage and recruit supporters – especially with help.
The pro-choice and environmental communities have a solid track record of publicizing in TV ads and direct voter contact the views of candidates they support and oppose. They are equally adept at getting out their voters. Progressive female candidates also can draw support, especially early campaign cash, from groups such as Emily's List.
While labor isn't a huge force in the 1st District, it earns its spurs by leveraging its organizational capabilities, most often in support of Democrats.
The Democratic Party of Oregon has developed and refined its own get-out-the-vote apparatus, which OPB Political Analyst Bill Lunch says originated to offset the historical tendency of a higher percentage of Republicans voting in elections than Democrats. The machine has evolved to include new voter recruitment, aided hugely in 2008 by the Barack Obama presidential campaign.
Pundits may wonder whether the GOP will take another crack at Bonamici this fall when she runs for election in the new configuration of the 1st District, which will no longer include a big chunk of Southwest Portland. Stop wondering.
Bonamici's solid victory and the prospect of a strong Obama ground game in Oregon seeking to reactivate his army of young people and newly registered minority voters makes it doubtful a Republican can succeed. While Obama's forces won't take Oregon for granted, the GOP presidential nominee may not contest the state that hard, which deprives congressional candidates of invaluable political coattails.
Of course, we live in politically volatile times when anything can happen. But for now, count on following the career of Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici for quite a while.