Oregon Race in National Spotlight

Democrat Suzanne Bonamici and Republican Rob Cornilles are running for Congress from Oregon, but will campaign under a national spotlight.

Updated November 16, 2011 at 9:27am

The January 31 election of a replacement for former Congressman David Wu is certain to draw national attention, and financial contributions and will serve as the latest test of electoral appeal between Republicans and Democrats.

Individual congressional elections are usually more of a reflection of local political views and constituent issues. However, politics has moved onto a national stage in a contest over issues such as health care, fiscal policy and foreign policy. After Republican Rob Cornilles and Democrat Suzanne Bonamici comfortably won their respective primaries November 8, they immediately plunged into the special general election, which looks to be the first congressional election of 2012.

Bonamici shored up her base by holding a press conference the day after the election with her two major primary opponents, Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian and Rep. Brad Witt, who both pledged their support.

Cornilles used his first post-primary speech to claim Bonamici supports a huge cut in Medicare.

Oregon's First Congressional District, which sweeps from the west side of Portland to the northern Oregon Coast, became a focal point of attention as Wu self-destructed, starting with the mass departure of key staff after he was re-elected in 2010. Wu's appearance in a tiger suit became an online sensation, making him the butt of jokes and an increasingly unwanted presence in the House Democratic caucus.

Operatives from both political parties like their candidates in this race. Cornilles boasts of his business credentials, but has shied away from embracing Tea Party principles to avoid alienating GOP moderates, especially suburban women voters. Bonamici, a state senator from Beaverton and attorney with experience in consumer protection issues, sports progressive credentials without a strong streak of partisanship. She helped steer through the 2011 legislature redistricting plans for legislative and congressional districts, despite split control in the Oregon House. Neither Cornilles nor Bonamici appears to be a candidate who speaks before thinking.

Voters in the First District can expect a hard-hitting campaign, by both the candidates and independent committees that lob attacks.

While the votes will be counted January 31, the battle won't be over. This special election is just to fill out the remainder of Wu's term. The May 2012 primary, to decide who is elected to the next Congress, may very well pit the same two candidates. One will be running as the incumbent — with all the benefits of being in office, but also the potential downside of having a voting record on some tough election-year spending and tax issues.

Political analysts note that the January special election will be contested in the current First Congressional District, which includes much of Southwest Portland. The May primary and November general election in 2012 will involve the new district lines, which exclude Southwest Portland (which becomes part of the Third District).

Oregon's Independent Party is also courting the candidates in service of potentially endorsing one of them. Under new Oregon election law, that endorsement would appear on the January 31 mail-in ballot.

That subtle shift in the gravitational and political center of the First District is likely to keep candles burning on the desks of operatives from both parties. KATU-TV (ABC) in Portland will air the first special election debate between Cornilles and Bonamici on November 27, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, from 7 to 8 p.m.