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Congressional Hopefuls Wait for Beaver State Dam to Break

If the Beaver State’s political dam ever bursts, operatives say an abundance of backed-up congressional hopefuls will try to come to Capitol Hill.

Democrats dominate the state’s congressional delegation, which includes only one Republican, but an open House or Senate seat could give the GOP an opportunity to play. As a result, both parties are priming their farm teams, searching for political talent with congressional ambition.

“Democrats start off any statewide race with a big lead in voter registration, party infrastructure and ground game,” Oregon Democratic consultant Jake Weigler said.

“That said, our independent streak always creates an opportunity for a moderate who can survive the primary and remain positioned to stay competitive in the Portland metro area,” he added. “But to date, the state GOP has not been able to build a bench of such candidates.”

The state’s two Democratic senators — Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley — are not expected to retire in the near future.

Merkley, 57, is seeking re-election this year in a largely uncompetitive race. The 64-year-old Wyden is up for re-election in 2016.

But when either senator retires, Democrats say that any of the House Democrats could run, specifically naming Reps. Suzanne Bonamici and Earl Blumenauer as possible successors.

Beyond the House delegation, Democrats named Oregon state Speaker Tina Kotek, Portland Commissioner Steve Novick and state Rep. Sara Gelser as future Senate contenders. Novick ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2008, losing the Democratic primary to Merkley.

Oregon Republicans privately acknowledge their statewide bench lacks top prospects. But GOP operatives insist a Senate seat could be in play without a Democratic incumbent and a strong recruit. But who could that be?

“You could make a lot of money if you knew the answer [to that question]” quipped a national Republican with Oregon ties.

Many Republicans point to National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden as the state party’s central figure. Oregonian Republicans also name orthopedic surgeon Dr. Knute Buehler as another would-be Senate candidate.

As for the House, Oregon Republicans acknowledge they face a slog to put seats in play. Two Democratic House seats are mildly competitive: those held by Reps. Kurt Schrader and Peter A. DeFazio. If either member leaves office, Republicans would almost certainly compete for the seats.

Republicans are making some noise about going after Schrader this year — but it’s a peripheral race at best. Two Republicans have challenged him so far: former congressional staffer Ben Pollock and Clackamas County Commissioner Tootie Smith.

But privately, Republicans concede that Schrader is a savvy Blue Dog and a strong fundraiser who can fend off serious challenges in what ought to be a competitive seat.

In an open-seat race, Republicans say state Reps. Julie Parrish and John Davis would give Schrader’s seat a look. The Democratic bench includes Clackamas County Commissioner Martha Schrader (the congressman’s ex-wife), former Clackamas County Commissioner Ann Lininger, radio host Paul Evans and state Rep. Brent Barton.

Compared to Schrader’s 5th District, DeFazio’s seat is less competitive for Republicans. DeFazio racked up a 20-point margin in 2012, but the president won the seat by only 7 points.

If DeFazio retires, Republicans say state Rep. Bruce Hanna and Lane County Commissioners Faye Stewart and Sid Leiken could run. But Democrats also boast a strong bench that includes Gelser, state Rep. Val Hoyle and state Sen. Floyd Prozanski.

If Bonamici runs for higher office or leaves her safe Democratic seat, Beaver State Democrats point to state Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, state Reps. Tobias Read and Ben Unger, and state Sen. Mark Hass as potential successors.

As for Blumenauer’s Portland-based district, Democrats would form a long line to run if the nine-term congressman retires.

“Everybody in Portland” would launch a campaign, suggested a state Democratic operative. “It would be a pretty bloody fight for the seat.”

Democrats named Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown, Novick, state Rep. Jennifer Williamson, Kotek and Portland Commissioner Nick Fish as possible contenders.

Republicans will similarly line up to run for the state’s lone safe Republican seat — the 2nd District — if Walden retires. There would be a “free for all,” according to that national Republican operative.

Republicans name state Rep. Mike McLane, Buehler, state Sen. Tim Knopp and state Rep. Jason Conger as possible contenders.

Farm Team is a weekly state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress.

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