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Wyden re-election bid aided by national GOP ignoring opponent

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Oregon Capital Bureau

In an election year that threatens hurricane-force change on every level of Oregon politics, Ron Wyden is in the calm eye of the storm.

The governor’s office, open congressional seats and legislative majorities are up for grabs when election returns are revealed starting Tuesday night.

Democrats are vying for funds right up until the last minute, hoping that their race remains on the front burner for the national bankrollers who are triaging where to spend and where to throw in the towel.

Wyden’s race isn’t on the back burner — it’s off the stove.

“You still get out and ask the people to vote for you,” Wyden said earlier this month. “In a democracy, that is how it’s done. The United States is a democracy.”

The point is not moot in Wyden’s mind, given the atmosphere in the nation that has unleashed a streak of authoritarianism into politics. Those who promise order, but not law.

The GOP nominee is perennial Republican candidate Jo Rae Perkins of Albany, an election denier with past ties to the QAnon conspiracy theories.

His campaign doesn’t need bailing out. He’s raised $13.8 million in the run-up to the election. He’s spent nearly $12.7 million, but when combined with funds from earlier campaigns, he still has $4.5 million in the bank.

While Republican governor candidate Christine Drazan has raised $22 million and received several multi-million dollar donations from national Republican groups, Perkins has been ignored by GOP leaders and major donors.

Perkins has raised just $92,387, spent $87,746 and has $30,499 in the bank. 

Perkins won the Republican nomination to run against U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, in 2020. Merkley beat her 56.9% to 39.3%, but she received 912,000 votes.

Perkins has said she was outside the Capitol, but did not take part in the storming of the House and Senate chambers.

Perkins has said she was outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, but did not take part in the storming of the House and Senate chambers by supporters of President Donald Trump.

The riot required evacuation of lawmakers and Vice President Mike Pence, who were certifying the Electoral College votes of the victory by Democrat Joe Biden over Trump.

“The so called violence is a false narrative,” Perkins tweeted three days after the incident. 

She also tweeted that “AntiFa was on site and escorted” by police who Perkins said let leftists into the building.

“I saw no violence during 3.5 hrs on site,” Perkins tweeted. She included the hashtag #trumpwon.

Later in January 2021, Oregon Republican Party chair Bill Currier embraced the same claim that leftist “Antifa” agitators had led the attack on the Capitol, only to be rebuked by then-House minority leader Drazan, R-Canby, and the rest of the GOP caucus.

“There is no credible evidence to support false flag claims,” Drazan’s letter said.

Drazan has faced questions about her support for Perkins. During an August television interview in Medford, she bristled at being asked about the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate while she was running for governor as the party’s standard-bearer in Oregon.  

The question “makes Oregon voters suspicious and anxious about the state of our elections and frankly, the state of our traditional press,” she told KOBI news director Craig Smullin.

When Smullin pressed her again, Drazan wondered why viewers would care about her stance on the party’s U.S. Senate nominee. 

“You are the potential leader of your party in the state of Oregon,” Smullin said.  

Drazan said “I wish all Republican candidates the best in this next election cycle.” 

While Drazan hasn’t forcefully endorsed Perkins, others affiliated with the party have. Conservative radio talk show host Lars Larsen has proclaimed his enthusiasm, with an endorsement on Perkins’ website.

“Jo Rae has shown herself to be a solid conservative, with the right mindset geared toward leading the state back toward a focus on morality and family values, and smart economic growth instead of just pushing one subsidized green-policy after another like Wyden has done for more than the past two dozen years,” Larsen said.

But others in the party see Perkins’s ability to win the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate twice in a row as not just a liability at the polls, but dangerous to American democracy.

Former U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Oregon, served 12 years in the Senate with Wyden before he was defeated in 2008 by Merkley.

In a letter released earlier this autumn, Smith said he was concerned by the turn of events that had made Perkins the nominee for the U.S. Senate in consecutive elections.

While stopping short of endorsing Wyden, Smith praised his time with the Democrat as illustrative of “the Oregon Way” of finding middle ground between different viewpoints.

“Ron Wyden and I served together in the United States Senate representing Oregon,” Smith wrote. “And while we disagreed about plenty of issues, we’re both Oregonians proud of our state’s history where members of both parties have worked to reach honorable compromises motivated by what’s best for Oregon — and grounded in facts and shared values based in healthy debate.”

Without mentioning her by name, Smith said Perkins was “unworthy” of carrying a Republican designation that had once been that of former senators Tom McCall and Mark Hatfield.

“I understand his opponent is a believer in QAnon, a bizarre and baseless conspiracy theory that depicts President Donald Trump as heroically fighting a secret battle against a sect of devil-worshiping pedophiles who dominate business, the media, and government,” Smith wrote. “Oregon and the Nation deserve to hear and consider Republican policy prescriptions undiluted, and not discredited, by such collateral nonsense.” 

While Wyden is unlikely to lose his seat, he is in danger of losing his status.

Democrats are the majority party on the basis of Vice President Kamala Harris being able to break some tie votes in a chamber evenly split 50-50.

In the Senate, 33 seats up for election in 2024, 23 are held by Democrats.

Wyden is the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and the leading Senate Democrat on the Joint Committee on Taxation. He also serves on the Intelligence, Budget, and Energy and Natural Resources committees.

The loss of even one seat would put him back into minority party status. 

That would put him back where he was just two years ago, fighting what he calls a “Frankenstein’s monster” of an agenda that includes what Wyden says are more tax cuts for special interests of the type pushed through Congress under Trump. 

In his campaign ads, a major Wyden theme has been that corporations cheat on their taxes, with one example of a company that paid only 5% of their profits in taxes, while a two-earner American couple making $150,000 paid 20%.

Wyden’s re-election would put him on the path to becoming the longest tenure of a U.S. Senator from Oregon.

He moves into second place Saturday, Nov. 5, having served 26 years and 8 months since he was sworn in as a senator on Feb. 5, 1996.

That passes U.S. Sen. Charles McNary, a Republican, who served from 1917 to 1944.

McNary sought to cut short his own tenure, running for vice president on the 1940 GOP ticket with presidential nominee Wendall Wilkie. Franklin Roosevelt won a third term and Henry Wallace became the new vice president. McNary went back to the Senate, staying until he died four years later.

Next up is Hatfield, who was in office three days short of 30 years. Wyden’s tenure would beat Hatfield’s by the end of his new term.  

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