Monday, September 01, 2008

What I Did When I Wasn’t at the Convention

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Oregon Congressional candidate Kurt Schrader (D) has his sights set on Congress, and his path doesn’t go through Denver. While some of the Democrats’ most promising House candidates were highlighted from the convention floor Tuesday, Schrader chose to skip the week’s festivities.

Schrader serves in the state Senate and is locked in a battle with wealthy businessman Mike Erickson (R) in Oregon’s 5th district, which is being vacated by Rep. Darlene Hooley (D). It’s a rare Democratic open seat this cycle where Republicans actually have a chance of winning.

Not only could Schrader benefit from the extra time in the district, it looks like he’s got a better view from his television in Oregon than he would have if he were attending the convention himself.

Oregon’s 65-member convention delegation was relegated to the upper corner of the lower bowl of the Pepsi Center, to the left of the stage. But the Beaver State contingency made its voices heard Monday night, chanting “O-S-U” as Craig Robinson, the new head coach of the struggling men’s basketball team of Oregon State University, introduced his sister, Michelle Obama.

Part of Corvallis, home of OSU, is in the 5th district, which is more politically competitive than it seemed when Hooley was racking up comfortable re-election victories.

“There’ll be plenty of conventions,” Schrader said at the Aurora Colony Days Parade earlier this month. “I’ve learned you don’t mess around with that stuff until after you win.”

In reality, Schrader probably can’t afford the national party label in a district that President Bush carried narrowly, 50 percent to 49 percent, in 2004. And with African-Americans making up just 1 percent of the district, Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) looks like less of a downballot force.

“We really felt like it was more important to be in the district,” Schrader campaign manager Paul Gage said, particularly because the candidate still works part time.

This week looked like most others for Schrader, as he worked Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday mornings at his Clackamas County Veterinary Clinic in Oregon City and made fundraising calls in the afternoon.

On Monday evening, Schrader spoke to the Lake Oswego Rotary forum before catching part of the convention on TV. And on Tuesday, his convention-watching followed a house party in Milwaukie. Wednesday’s convention program featured Oregon state Speaker Jeff Merkley (D), who is challenging Sen. Gordon Smith (R), and Schrader planned to catch part of the coverage after a meeting with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

The 5th district could be a battleground at the presidential, Senate and Congressional levels. Hooley has held the seat since 1996, when she defeated then-Rep. Jim Bunn (R) 51 percent to 46 percent, and she’s won solid, but not overwhelming, re-elections ever since. A Republican House candidate hasn’t reached 50 percent in the district in almost two decades, but the GOP has been competitive.

In this race, Schrader and Erickson have spent their summer campaigning across the Willamette Valley and coastal counties, attending parades and fairs. And they’re leaving no stone unturned.

Aurora, population 655, recently played host to both candidates during their annual parade. The town covers less than half a square mile but featured Schrader and Erickson’s dueling 4x4 trucks emblazoned with campaign regalia and small troops of volunteers.

Don’t mistake Aurora’s size for political naiveté. In 2006, Jennifer Strutz unseated incumbent Mayor Bill Carr, 230 votes to 185 votes. But just a year later, after Strutz subsequently proposed raising taxes, the town recalled her by a vote of 181-176.

“I thought it was nice that they came to such a small parade as ours,” said one woman, who spoke with Erickson before the parade and shook Schrader’s hand during it. “[Erickson] said he’s not a politician and he’s a businessman who’ll fix Washington. Sounds pretty good to me.”

Before the Aurora parade, Erickson, dressed in a tan polo shirt (complete with sewn-on campaign logo) and dress slacks, was vigorously shaking hands with everyone in the staging area, handing out palm cards and business cards. He paused to share a minute with Schrader, dressed in a red button down shirt, jeans and a large belt buckle, who was waiting with his staff for the parade to begin.

During the parade, Erickson weaved from sidewalk to sidewalk, breathlessly greeting potential constituents. An unrelated rolling port-a-potty followed the Erickson entourage in the parade, doing wheelies along the way.

On this day, the Republican was somewhat of a celebrity, not necessarily because of his politics, but because people recognized him from his television ads.

The wealthy businessman spent more than $1.5 million of his own money in 2006, in his double-digit loss to Hooley. And he has spent a similar amount already this cycle getting through a competitive GOP primary.

But this year, Erickson has often been on the defensive, answering questions about his personal life — particularly questions about whether he knowingly took an ex-girlfriend to get an abortion — to the point that GOP insiders aren’t particularly high on his chances.

Erickson had $400,000 in the bank on June 30, almost double Schrader’s $231,000. The Democrat raised more than a half a million dollars through the first six months of the year. He will need to step up his fundraising to compete with his wealthy opponent.

Schrader split his time on the parade route walking and waving behind the campaign banner being held by two staff members and greeting voters on the side of the street, with a hearse advertising Milburn’s Haunted Mansion and a handful of teenagers in gothic garb trailing a few feet behind.

The state Senator represents southwestern Clackamas County and still needs to increase his name identification districtwide. Some folks were more familiar with his wife, Martha Schrader, a Clackamas County commissioner who was also considered a potential 5th district candidate immediately after Hooley announced her retirement.

The Schraders moved to Oregon after graduate school and live on a historic farm near Canby.

After the parade, kids raced around Aurora’s sidewalks with Erickson for Congress stickers affixed to their helmets — partial evidence that the Republican may have won the day and the battle. But Schrader has a slight edge in the war.

The national environment continues to be poor for Republicans and the personal questions surrounding Erickson makes it difficult for him to get out any other message. And while the district is competitive, some Portland suburbs in Multnomah County, along with the Corvallis area, give Democrats a boost.

It looks like Schrader’s race to lose, but he’s got a few years to make it look as easy as Hooley did.

This story first appeared in Roll Call on August 28, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.