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Oregon GOP Can’t Find Wyden Foe

While national Republicans and President Bush’s political operatives hope to pour extra resources into Oregon in 2004, the party has been unable to find a challenger to take on Sen. Ron Wyden (D) in his quest for a second full term.

“At this point we do not have a single, clear candidate to run against Ron Wyden,” conceded Kevin Mannix, chairman of the Oregon Republican Party. “There are at least two people out there who have not said no.”

“At some point they’ll probably be wanting to interview dog catchers,” quipped Democratic pollster Lisa Grove.

Wyden, who easily bested Republican John Lim in the 1998 Senate contest,

hasn’t confronted serious competition since he squeaked by now-Sen. Gordon Smith (R) in a 1996 special election to replace then-Sen. Bob Packwood (R), who resigned.

Still, Grove, who has done polling for Wyden since the late 1980s when he was still a House Member, said that “any campaign is nerve-racking when you don’t know who you are running against.”

If and when a Republican challenger does step forward, he or she will have to contend with Wyden’s sizable war chest, however.

According to his latest campaign finance reports, Wyden raised $1.2 million in the most recent filing period and had nearly $2.4 million cash on hand as of June 30. And Wyden’s list of donors includes several prominent Republicans, including Joan Austin, co-chairwoman of the state GOP finance committee, who gave him $2,000 in the second quarter of the year.

The fact that Austin, who co-owns the nation’s largest private dental manufacturing company, has thrown her support behind Wyden is viewed by some political observers as an indication of the degree to which the state GOP has written off the possibility of unseating him.

“If there was somebody serious, the Republican powers that be would have at least put pressure on those folks not to come forward for Wyden,” said Tim Hibbitts, a partner in the Portland, Ore., public opinion research firm Davis & Hibbitts Inc.

Mannix said he understood Austin’s reasons for backing Wyden, but added, “Of course, we’d rather she didn’t.”

Dan Lavey, a Smith political consultant who works for the Gallatin Group, said Wyden “has done an impressive job of securing the support of many high-profile Republican contributors, many of whom support Senator Smith and serve on his finance committee.”

And it’s unlikely that any potential GOP candidate would get much support from Smith, given the two Senators’ strong working relationship. As one Democratic source with ties to Wyden put it, although Smith would likely back whatever Republican candidate emerged, Smith “also made it clear that he doesn’t anticipate that our race will be a priority for him just as his race was not a top priority for Senator Wyden [in 2002].”

Moreover, Oregon is a state that has tended to keep its Senators. Wyden and Smith’s predecessors, Packwood and Mark Hatfield (R), each served more than a quarter-century in the Senate. “In terms of what’s going on with Smith and Wyden, it’s apparent that people in Oregon are pretty satisfied at this time,” said the Democratic source with ties to Wyden.

Oregon, with a divided electorate that includes a sizable portion of nonaffiliated voters, trends Democratic. Smith is the only statewide elected Republican and the only Republican Senator from the West Coast states of Washington, Oregon and California.

Yet the Oregon House of Representatives has a Republican majority, and control of the state Senate is evenly split.

“Our farm team is pretty comfortable in the farm,” Lavey said.

Still, Bush lost the Beaver State to Al Gore (D) by just one-half percent in 2000 — thanks in part to Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who took 5 percent of the vote — and has targeted Oregon as a battleground state in the 2004 cycle, even though Democrats have carried the past four presidential elections there.

“It’s going to be a very aggressive statewide campaign,” said Molly Bordonaro, Northwest regional chairwoman for Bush’s re-election campaign.

Although Mannix has pledged to field a Senatorial candidate that “we won’t be embarrassed about” when Bush visits Oregon, he said the state party had no plans “to spend specific money on advertising for this race” and said the eventual candidate should not expect “a big pot of cash.”

Rather, Mannix maintained, the state party is focused on Bush and House races in the 1st and 5th districts — respectively represented by Democratic Reps. David Wu and Darlene Hooley — where it sees an opportunity to pick up seats. In the Portland-based 1st, which leans Democratic, Republican challenger Tim Phillips, who runs a brokerage house, has raised more than $200,000; in the more competitive 5th in the Willamette Valley, the leading Republican candidate, attorney Jim Zupancic, has about $170,000 cash on hand.

“We are going to do some very aggressive voter identification and turnout, and we’ll be doing a lot of that in the Portland metro area, which is our weakest part of the state,” Mannix said. Both the 1st and 5th districts are part of the greater Portland metro area.

Meanwhile, the 3rd district seat, occupied by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D), could be vacant in 2004, with the five-term Member expected to announce in the fall whether he will run for mayor of Portland next year. But the 3rd is a Democratic stronghold — Bush took just 33 percent of the vote in 2000 — and the action to succeed Blumenauer would likely be in the Democratic primary exclusively.

As for the Senate race, Mannix confessed, “I’m not sitting in a corner with a hat over my head mumbling to myself, ‘We’re going to win this one.’”

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