Democrat favored in Oregon congressional election

PORTLAND, Oregon Tue Jan 31, 2012 11:04am EST

A woman listens as Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich attends the South Carolina Tea Party Convention in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, January 16, 2012.  REUTERS/Eric Thayer

A woman listens as Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich attends the South Carolina Tea Party Convention in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, January 16, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Eric Thayer

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PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - A Democratic former Oregon state legislator was favored to win a special election on Tuesday to fill the congressional seat vacated by disgraced Democrat David Wu, who resigned in a sex scandal.

Suzanne Bonamici, who most recently served as a state senator, is running against Republican businessman Rob Cornilles to represent a diverse district that includes the Nike Inc. headquarters, much of Oregon's high tech industry, wealthy suburbs and areas dependent on farming and fishing.

The western Oregon district has sent a Democrat to the House of Representatives since 1974, and Democrats have a 12 percentage point advantage in voter registration.

Democrats have sought to paint Cornilles as a Tea Party radical, a tactic the party may use in congressional races around the country in November.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent about $1.3 million in the race. Television advertising and a website run by the committee seize on Cornilles calling himself "the original Tea Party candidate" during a previous congressional run against Wu in 2010.

Many Republican candidates nationally attended Tea Party events and sought endorsements from local chapters in the 2010 midterm elections, as support for the conservative movement's small-government mantra swelled.

But polls have suggested declining sympathy for Tea Party-sanctioned Republican freshmen in the House of Representatives after they were seen as obstructionist on the debt ceiling, extending payroll taxes and other issues in 2011, raising questions about their tactics.

The special election is generally not seen as a referendum on President Barack Obama, said political analyst and retired Oregon State University professor Bill Lunch. "The focus has been on the characteristics of the candidates themselves," he said.

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Television advertisements in favor of Bonamici, an attorney, have questioned her opponent's claims of job creation and the tax payment record for his business. Ads from the Cornilles camp, meanwhile, have portrayed Bonamici as a proponent of raising taxes and they have shown photos of her with Wu.

Wu, who was in his seventh term, resigned in August after a woman accused him of an unwanted sexual advance.

Despite her fellow Democrat's troubles, Bonamici was favored by 50 percent of voters to Cornilles' 39 percent in an early January poll taken by SurveyUSA for Portland's KATU television.

"Numbers currently look very strong for Bonamici," Paul Gronke, a political analyst and professor at Reed College, Portland, said in an email. "Nothing is ever a given, but I'd be very surprised if she lost at this point."

Nevertheless, Republicans remain optimistic. "This is a historic opportunity. We have a really good shot at this district," said Greg Leo, chief of staff of the Oregon Republican Party.

Oregon has an mail voting system. Ballots are due back in the mail or to be dropped off at collection sites on Tuesday.

(Editing By Alex Dobuzinskis and Daniel Trotta)

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