What the Oregon special election will say about the 2012 vote

The frenzy of activity and early-state voting in the presidential race will take top billing in January, but as the month comes to a close, the verdict will be handed down in another closely watched race in Oregon.

Suzanne Bonamici, a former Democratic state senator, and Rob Cornilles, a Republican businessman, will spend the first weeks of the new year duking it out ahead of a Jan. 31 special election. The two are vying to fill the empty House seat held until July by former Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), who resigned amid a sex scandal.

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Democrats have the unambiguous advantage in this left-leaning district and, under normal circumstances, the race would attract little attention outside of the Portland area.

But Bonamici and Cornilles have the questionable fortune of a race that falls less than a year before another election that will determine whether Democrats hold on to the White House and Senate, and retake control of the House. The results of the special House race will be broken down and analyzed for signs of what it could portend about what voters will do in November with a level of scrutiny generally reserved for crime-scene evidence.

If Bonamici wins by anything less than a 10-point margin, strategists say, Republicans will seize on the results as proof that Americans are rejecting the Democratic approach to righting the economy, and that President Obama has so damaged Democratic prospects that they stand no chance at flipping the 25 GOP-held seats they need to retake the majority in the House.

If Bonamici stomps out her Republican competition, Democrats will use the win to bolster their argument that the Republican majority in the House has been an abject failure, and that voters will snub the Tea Party mentality by ousting House Republicans in November.

Still stinging from a brutal loss in a special House race in September in a liberal New York district where they should have trounced the Republican, Democrats aren’t taking any chances.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee plopped about one million dollars on television ads attacking Cornilles for two weeks in December and another two weeks at the end of January, according to a Republican source tracking ad buys. The eye-popping figure raised alarms in Washington, prompting speculation that Democrats are fretting their fate even in districts where by all measures they should be safe.

Both the Bonamici and Cornilles campaigns have gone on the air in Portland with their own ads. And EMILY’s List, a Democratic political action committee, has purchased another $57,000 in ad time in Portland for the two weeks starting Jan. 3, according to Smart Media Group. EMILY’s List supports female candidates who favor abortion rights, and has endorsed Bonamici.

Bonamici was 11 points ahead of Cornilles in mid-December, capturing 52 percent of likely voters in a survey by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling. Bonamici performed better among women than Cornilles and showed considerable crossover support from Republicans, but Cornilles outperformed her among voters who were 30 to 45 years old.

In many ways, the race exemplifies the age-old philosophical divergence between mainstream Democrats and mainstream Republicans; both Cornilles and Bonamici avow that their chief responsibility if elected to federal office must be to produce jobs for Americans in Oregon and elsewhere.

But the Republican says cutting taxes, curbing federal spending and gutting corporate tax breaks are the path to prosperity; the Democrat argues government has a more active role to play in putting Americans to work rebuilding bridges and roads, and providing capital for fledgling small businesses — even if it means hiking taxes on the wealthiest in society.

With the eyes of Washington’s prognosticators and political operatives upon them, Bonamici and Cornilles have been unafraid to go decidedly negative against each other in speeches, ads and a televised debate.

Bonamici has had an easier task to portray her opponent as a mismatch for the values of voters in a district that is used to electing Democrats. Coming to her aid have been national Democrats, who have raised questions about Cornilles’s sports marketing business, which he touts nonstop on the campaign trail as proof of his job-creating prowess. Reports in December showed his business has dwindled to a handful of employees working from home, and that his claims about how many jobs he created might have been exaggerated.

Cornilles has had little help from national Republicans, who are reluctant to invest their resources in a race they are likely to lose. But Cornilles has gotten some traction by pointing out that Bonamici, a former Federal Trade Commission attorney, has no record of job creation. He has also worked to paint her as too liberal even for Oregon voters, and has called attention to a interviews where Bonamici struggled to clearly communicate how she would wield her authority in Congress to spur economic growth.

Fundraising figures from the weeks following the Nov. 8 primary haven’t been released, but in the third quarter of 2011, Bonamici brought in $600,000, while Cornilles raised just over $500,000.

Ballots will be mailed starting Jan. 13 for the special election, which is being conducted entirely through mail-in ballots.