Oregon Congressional Incumbent Faces Challenge Within His Party

Something odd is happening in Oregon’s 1st Congressional District. An underfinanced candidate with little political experience or name recognition has gained some surprising support for his challenge to the incumbent, Democratic Congressman David Wu. More surprising, the challenge is coming from within Wu’s own party.

Will Hobbs, an electronics engineer and former rock musician, won the endorsement of the state’s largest daily newspaper, The Oregonian, and that of one of the region’s leading weekly newspaper, Willamette Week.

Even though most incumbents face nominal challenges from within their own party, such challengers generally attract little notice and less support. The fact that Hobbs, a political novice in his first try for elective office, can gain two significant endorsements might say as much about Wu’s problems in the district he has represented for 10 years as it does about Hobbs’ strengths.

In fact, The Oregonian’s endorsement of Hobbs reads like an indictment of Wu’s perceived political shortcomings: “To put it politely, the erratic, sometimes incoherent Wu has not won the respect of his House colleagues, a failure reflected in his slim resume of committee appointments and his perennially abysmal power ratings after five terms in Congress.”

Willamette Week casts its endorsement in a more positive light, citing Hobbs’ knowledge of the issues and his willingness to take clear, strong stands.

Despite these endorsements, Hobbs currently seems a minimal threat to Wu in the May 20th primary. Even though Wu has been criticized for what voters see as a lackluster style and his election victories are seldom by large margins, Hobbs has little money and almost no time left to catch Wu. Hobbs’ strong opposition to a liquefied natural gas terminal in the lower Columbia River might gain him votes in Clatsop and Columbia counties but his positions on other issues are not dramatically different from those of Wu.

Two Republicans vying for that party’s nomination are, like Hobbs, relatively unknown, politically inexperienced and underfunded. Even if Hobbs gets enough Democratic votes to indicate Wu is vulnerable in the fall election, the Republican challengers’ ability to take advantage of that weakness will be limited. Because the congressional race in another district, the Oregon 5th Congressional District where there will not be an incumbent on the ballot, promises to be among the most hotly contested House campaigns in the country, that race will attract a great deal of financial and political assistance, thus limiting resources available to other contests.

Hobbs challenge, even if unsuccessful, can damage Wu’s prospects for future elections. Even limited success by Hobbs in 2008 could encourage the entry of more serious, better financed, challengers in 2010 from both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Story by Steve Holgate.

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