David Wu's re-election strategy: Stay out of the way

Jon Isaacs

Today, the National Journal's Hotline made the following observation about the state of the race in Oregon's 1st Congressional District (sorry, no link for this subscription service):

It's getting crowded in the race to challenge embattled Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) in the Democratic primary, as Oregon state Rep. Brad Witt (D) is considering challenging Wu. State Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian (D) entered the race last week, and state Sen. Suzanne Bonamici (D) and former state Rep.Greg Macpherson (D) are reportedly also considering bids. The more, the merrier for Wu. If there's a splintered anti-Wu field, it would give the congressman a chance to prevail with a mere plurality of the vote.

Also today, they had this to say over at Swing State Project:

OR-01: State Rep. Brad Witt has been upgraded from "rumor level" to "considering level." Blue Oregon mentioned the other day that he was a possible contender to challenge Rep. David Wu in the Dem primary; now, according to Jeff Mapes in the Oregonian, some of his advisors are saying he's definitely interested. He'd be the second Democrat (well, other than Wu himself) to get into the race - Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian is already running, setting up a battle of the Brads. There are also still several other people in the more nebulous stages of candidacy, so I hope that we don't (as some have suggested in comments) wind up with David Wu turning into the Dem version of Dan Burton and winning the primary with a bare plurality.

And finally, the Daily Astorian had this to say:

At least two things are clear for Avakian and his eventual Democratic adversaries. It is not sufficient for a challenger not to be David Wu. To gain visibility, they must bring a measure of excitement that we have not seen in this congressional district. Secondly, as more challengers enter that primary, Wu’s odds of survival increase. That is the power of incumbency. In other words, a three-way or four-way primary race benefits Wu.

I completely agree with these assessments. If you're in the re-elect David Wu camp, for now, all you need to do is just stay out of the way and let the primary turn into a multi-candidate free for all.

My guess is David Wu is not as weak as many seem to think he is and has a LOCK on 35% - 45% of the Democratic primary vote, leaving around 60% of the vote left for a challenger/challengers to win. I also guess that his path to 50% or more is very, very difficult, meaning a single primary opponent has a real shot. However, multiple challengers will be left to fight for and split up 60% or less of the vote. The more candidates who get in the primary the more you have to consider Wu the favorite.

So based on the news reports we've seen - and if clearer heads don't prevail - next May we could be looking at a severely weakened incumbent moving on to a general election after earning about 40% of the primary vote. Left in the dust will be a group of incredibly talented progressive public servants all wondering what happened and what they're going to do next. And the rest of us will need to get ready to fight tooth and nail just to hold a seat that really shouldn't be that competetive in the first place.

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    Former Orefon state senator and president of the Oregon Business Council-Ryan Deckert-is poised to join the crowd of candidates.

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    I am not convinced of Jon's premise. As the campaigns move forward there will be a lot of polling. Those that are at the bottom will have difficulty raising money and will likely drop out. That goes for Mr. Wu too. If polls show that he would lose the general, his support will disappear. He does not have deep support in the district. My guess is that his core support is much lower than what Jon suggests.

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      I disagree. I think Jon's assessment is pretty well grounded. I also think that you underestimate the default position of most voters (even those in the primary) of supporting their parties incumbent.

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      Most of the potential challengers are not going to see thier polling numbers move signficantly until pretty late in the race. In this context, it's hard to see a candidate announcing, then getting out--like you've suggested--before his or her paid media program starts. Given the timing, I just don't see that as very realistic, plus they'd still be on the ballot, for what it's worth. A crowded field is not really a great scenario for anyone from where I sit.

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    Jon, this is a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. Your logic seems about right on to me--though I would like to hear how you calculated Wu's support. You've placed his floor very high--why do you think these folks won't be swayed by Wu's troubles?

    Nevertheless, whether his floor is 45% or 25%, he comes with a built-in constituency that exceeds any of his challengers. That's something for them all to consider.

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      Jeff -

      These are all educated guesses based on my observations and experience. Folks seem to be forgetting that we're talking about a six term incumbent who has been elected/re-elected seven times. It is really hard to pry away regular primary voters - maybe one of the toughest things to do in campaign politics. And I think I'm setting Wu's floor pretty low by assuming well over half of the primary electorate would be willing to vote for another Democrat. Clearly, Brad Avakian is proving with his initial endorser list and the impressive early fundraising he announced today.

      The reality is that this is working out the best for right wing/Tea Party. They couldn't ask for a better scenario than the one that looks like it's playing out.

      My early prediction - if two or more Democrats challenge Wu, in the absence of even more damaging revelations, Wu wins the primary. That will make this seat a top tier pick up opportunity for the Republicans.

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        I follow this with three or more, but not necessarily two.

        Don't know if it's your intention but this piece seems to benefit Brad Avakian, at least a bit. But maybe it's fairer to say that the logic you lay out was a good reason for him to jump in first.

        John C.'s point about polling seems to have some merit, not as a certainty but another plausible route.

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          I'd also like to associate myself with Chris's analysis. A nice thread all around!

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            The only reason I can see that my take benefits Avakian is he's the one who stepped up to take on Wu first. If another of the potentials got in first we would be saying the same for them.

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        Jon, fair enough. But I think you oversell this point a bit:

        Folks seem to be forgetting that we're talking about a six term incumbent who has been elected/re-elected seven times.

        I'm certainly not forgetting that. But the sentence should really say "a six-term incumbent who has recently been subjected to weeks of punishing press about his personal behavior." I give your logic the pole-position, but incumbency's a funny thing. It's great until it isn't, and then floors can drop out from underneath people. I have no sense of what the voters of D1 make of this Wu saga.

        This is one time when polling really would be good. If Wu has weathered the situation to this point, it's likely not going to damage him with his core supporters. But if they followed the saga and are jumping ship, look out.

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        Jon, I believe that you are one of the best political consultants/analysts in the state, but I just don't follow this. I live in CD1 and I have yet to find average voters (non-activists)who have a positive image of Wu and this was long before the recent exposes. (Not that they don't exist, but I think his support is a lot lower than you claim.) Lot's of people voted for him, but didn't like him. He got re-elected because Dems didn't want to challenge an incumbent and Republicans nominated inappropriate candidates.

        The story of this race will be all about Wu. Every story in the press or on TV will talk about his problems. Every candidate contact will raise the issue of his credibility and effectiveness. The opposition candidates don't have to say it directly, it will be in their "why am I running" message.

        Even if people haven't heard it now because they do not read the newspaper, they will hear it over and over again during the next two years.

        Lastly, if Susan Bonamici enters a multiple candidate race you will have the multiple males vs. single female factor which in Democratic primaries in Oregon is worth 5-10%.

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    I think you are exactly right, Jon. The average voter may have never even noticed David Wu's problems and therefore vote for him based on name recognition. Unless a candidate arises that is either extremely exciting and/or rich enough to dominate media, a crowded field wins Wu the primary. Then, he could lose to a well funded moderate R.

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    If the R's couldn't get traction in 2010, a tsunami year, and win the seat, it's difficult to imagine they will in a presidential year with an energized Democratic base, regardless of who wins the primary.

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