WEST LINN, Ore. -- Bullseye Coffee -- a café, a yarn shop and a postal box rental center
all in one homey room with local art (all for sale) on the walls -- is a prime spot to chart how the economic doldrums are shaping this election year.
Perched over a laptop computer Wednesday morning with her cat's-eye glasses sliding down her nose, Kelly O'Keefe was revising her resume (yet again) and trolling the Web dreaming of a job with social significance and willing to settle for almost anything. Unemployed since she graduated from Ohio's Antioch College in 2008, O'Keefe, a native Oregonian, remains unabashed in her political enthusiasm: "I love Obama. Nobody's perfect -- and he was very idealized and a lot of people set him up to fail."
An upper-middle-class southern suburb of Portland, West Linn (population: 25,556
) is emblematic of the 10.2 percent unemployment rate
(higher than the national average) that bedevils Oregon's largest metropolitan area. Linda Neace, who opened Bullseye Coffee four years ago in a small strip mall in downtown West Linn, said that business has dropped off sharply in the last six months. Neace, who displays campaign literature for candidates from both parties, would not reveal her own political allegiance. But she did say: "I hear a number of people say that they regret voting for Obama. And these are die-hard Democrats."
The political future of Democrat Kurt Schrader
-- a 58-year-old veterinarian and former state senator who was elected to Congress in 2008 -- depends on who gets blamed for a sputtering recovery that feels like a continued deep recession. Schrader's 5th Congressional District
, which stretches from the southern Portland suburbs (including West Linn) to the state capital in Salem and then to the Oregon coast, has been trending Democratic and Obama carried it with 54 percent of the vote in 2008. But this is a difficult year for any Democratic freshman -- and Schrader is facing a strong challenge from Republican Scott Bruun
, a 44-year-old state representative whose legislative district includes Bullseye Coffee.
"This seat is a bellwether," Bruun said on Monday afternoon as he sat unrecognized for an hour at an outdoor table at Peet's Coffee in Lake Oswego, an affluent suburb near West Linn. (Careful readers may note a heavy coffee-drinking motif to this article -- remember it's the Pacific Northwest). "It hasn't been held by the Republicans since 1996," Bruun said. "If I win the seat, Republicans will have a majority in the U.S. House."
There is a logic behind Bruun's self-serving arithmetic. As Bill Lunch, a political scientist at Oregon State University, explained: "This contest is properly on the list of the 40 or 50 most competitive House races in the country. But it's in the bottom half of that group." Schrader, who won an open seat with 54 percent of the vote against a scandal-scarred Republican in 2008, is nowhere near the top of the GOP target list and most handicappers rate the race
as "leans Democratic." But to surmount a 39-seat Democratic majority, Republicans must win difficult districts like Oregon's 5th or else -- for all the GOP's bold talk -- Nancy Pelosi again will be sworn in as House speaker next January.
Before anyone rushes to print up "As Goes Oregon-5, So Goes the Nation" T-shirts, a few cautionary words are in order. With neither candidate yet on the air in the expensive Portland media market, the congressional campaign is still in its languid, laid-back Oregon phase. During the first three days of this week, Bruun attended a Rotary Club meeting (but did not speak), sat down for an interview with me and held a closed-door fundraiser. Schrader was out of the state dealing with family matters, although he did talk with me by telephone. Small wonder that Republican Mary Kremer, who is running for a state Senate seat and shares a campaign office with Bruun, admits, "I haven't heard much about the House race as I go door-to-door."
That is why glib media predictions about the outcome of the November elections seem so out-of-whack with reality. Political junkies may be riveted by the gyrating poll numbers, but ordinary voters have not yet tuned in. In the absence of TV ad wars or televised debates, it is easy to get caught up in the evanescent details of the initial skirmishing. Schrader holds a decided fundraising edge ($915,000 in the bank at the end of June vs. $178,000 for Bruun) and boasts the traditional benefits of incumbency and constituent service. The Democratic freshman ballyhoos ("It was a huge, huge coup") his successful job-creating effort in helping the blue-collar fishing town of Newport become the new Pacific Ocean base for the research ships of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
But is this enough to inoculate Schrader in a tough economic environment? Schrader identifies himself with the Blue Dog Democrats (the party's fiscal moderates) and says proudly that Nancy Pelosi calls him "Mr. Budget Deficit." (You could just imagine the stilted formalities of a conversation between "Madame Speaker" and "Mr. Budget Deficit.") But Schrader also voted for the Obama-Pelosi trifecta: the economic stimulus bill, cap-and-trade energy legislation and health-care reform.
Bruun, who works for a privately held investment firm (Oregon has a part-time state legislature), describes himself as "a Jack Kemp Republican" concerned with "jobs, growth and business." Wearing a blue dress shirt with the sleeves half rolled up, the affable Bruun went out of his way to airily talk about a campaign built around a clash of ideas, contrasting his low-tax views with Schrader's House voting record. Harking back to their service together in the state Legislature, Bruun described Schrader as "a nice guy. I like him. I consider him my friend. I don't know if he calls me his friend now."
So I asked Schrader if they were still friends -- and got back an answer that suggests the congressman may have picked up a few lessons from pit bulls during his veterinary years. "I would just say that friends don't take someone's job away from them," he replied. "They would have asked me before they got into the race if there really is a substantive difference on the issues. . . . I never ever would have thought of running against him in a similar spot. I guess he just has a different idea of what is appropriate behavior."
Comments like this give off a whiff of boxers verbally working each other over at a pre-fight weigh-in. It is almost as if there has to be a sense of personal antagonism before a candidate can say, "I approve this message" at the end of a 30-second attack ad built around grainy photographs, spooky music and hyperbolic charges. In what sounded like a line that Oregon voters will hear again and again before November, Schrader did snarl, "Scott Bruun is already drinking the extremist Kool-Aid from Washington, D.C. -- and he isn't even there yet."
Bruun, in contrast, does try to claim the mantle of above-the-fray legislative bipartisanship: "Leadership does some really stupid things on both sides. You can quote me. You see it in the Oregon Legislature and you see it every single day when you look at Washington." But the Republican challenger can, if necessary, also turn a bread knife into a shiv. Asked about Schrader's recent House vote against the Afghan war, Bruun responded, "I guess I'm 180 degrees away from where Kurt Schrader is on the war. I was embarrassed by his vote on the troop funding." Words matter -- and "embarrassed" is a far more potent description than, say, "disappointed" or "saddened."
No one in either political camp believes that this election will become a referendum on the Afghan war. The economy dominates everything, which is why the Democrats jumped on Bruun's statement in a radio interview that extending unemployment compensation beyond 99 weeks would lead to "a European-style system
" of social welfare benefits. Asked about the comment in our interview, Bruun said, "I probably shouldn't have talked about the European thing, but I did. . . . I guess my push-back to the angst about that is that correctly [Europeans] have a longer benefit than Americans have. So we have to be cautious about going forward."
Fourteen weeks before Election Day, it is easy to envision the contours of the coming battle -- the slogans, the ad wars, the high-decibel charges -- in Oregon's 5th District. But what remains shrouded in the coastal mist is how real voters (not focus groups, not people pushing telephone buttons in response to a robo-poll) will respond to negative politics as usual in a time of torment.
What we do know about Oregon is that off-year turnout will be higher than almost anywhere else because of the state's landmark vote-by-mail system, which has eliminated traditional polling places. As Phil Keisling, the former Oregon Democratic secretary of state who pioneered vote-by-mail, said, "Vote-by-mail is definitely going to keep younger voters -- many of whom registered for the first time in 2008 -- who otherwise wouldn't turn out."
Something like that could be the difference for Schrader and, by implication, Nancy Pelosi. Or else the "Tsunami Warning" signs that you see along the Oregon coast pointing out evacuation routes may take on a literal meaning if the Democrats are upended by an economic tidal wave in November.