OREGON is well known for its maverick politicians, especially its Republican senators who have the habit of bucking party and president on fundamental issues like war and peace. Often they find themselves lining up with Democrats instead of with their own party. But this year's US Senate race is one of Republican tradition and conservatism versus Democratic progressive liberalism. On the economy, environment, social issues, and political reform, challenger Harry Lonsdale is positioning himself to the left of incumbent Mark Hatfield, now running for a fifth term.
It is an uphill battle for political novice Mr. Lonsdale, who trails in the polls. But there have been important demographic shifts in Oregon since Senator Hatfield (a former governor who has held public office here for 40 years) last ran for reelection. Lonsdale hopes to parlay changing times and attitudes in the Pacific Northwest into an upset.
``You have to assume that Mark Hatfield will get reelected,'' says Oregon State University political science professor William Lunch, also an analyst for Oregon Public Broadcasting. ``But the one rule in politics is `never say never.'''
The Democratic Party believes Lonsdale has enough of a chance that it is giving him the maximum in money and services allowed under federal election law. ``We were very impressed with Harry Lonsdale,'' says Anita Dunn of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. ``We feel he's a strong, credible candidate.''
``There are always one or two races in every election that people tend to discount,'' says Ms. Dunn, recalling the upset ouster of moderate Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker of Connecticut in 1988. ``Is there a gap in the polls right now? Absolutely. Will it remain that large? Absolutely not.''
Hatfield is running a steady, low-key campaign. He is stressing his philosophical consistency on positions, his independence in Washington, his power on Capitol Hill (he is the Senate's second-ranking Republican), and his service to constituents. As he has done for years, Hatfield refuses to confront his opponent face to face. Lonsdale appeared before the City Club of Portland last Friday to ``debate'' an empty chair.
Harry Lonsdale is a PhD chemist and entrepreneur who turned $5,000 seed money into a $5 million company specializing in antipollution and nontoxic insect controls. He chaired Gov. Neil Goldschmidt's Science Council, organized the annual ``Great Oregon Spring Cleanup'' to reduce litter, and was principle sponsor of a ballot initiative to protect rivers and streams. He is a shirtsleeves guy who, in the years since he moved out from New Jersey, has fit in well with the ``you bet'' friendliness here.
Lonsdale concedes Hatfield's personal popularity, but believes that could change once voters know all about his opponent's position on key issues. Focus groups conducted by pollster Paul Maslin among Hatfield supporters, Hatfield ``leaners,'' and undecided voters back up this contention. ``I've been involved in about 25 senate campaigns over the years, and this one has more potential for upset than any I've ever seen,'' says Mr. Maslin.
The key issues are:
Abortion, where Lonsdale is completely pro-choice and has the backing of the National Organization for Women and the National Abortion Rights Action League. Hatfield supports a constitutional ban on abortion in all cases (including rape and incest) except where the life of the mother is threatened. He fits this into his ``commitment to human life'' that includes opposition to the death penalty, support for a nuclear freeze, and work on behalf of health, poverty, and community action issues.
Polls show 73 percent of Oregonians tend to support candidates with pro-choice positions.
On timber and the northern spotted owl controversy, Lonsdale is far ``greener'' than Hatfield. He says old-growth forests have been dangerously overcut, and he supports a ban on log exports as a way to protect jobs in this timber-dependent region.
Unlike his fellow Oregonian in the Senate, Republican Bob Packwood, Hatfield would not ban log exports from private lands (which account for three-fourths of such exports). Lonsdale says this is because Hatfield is ``in the pocket'' of big timber companies, which provide more than a third of Hatfield's campaign contributions.
On campaign finance reform, Lonsdale refuses all contributions from political-action committees (PACs). This is easier for him to do than it might have been for another challenger; Lonsdale has been able to donate several hundred thousand dollars to his own campaign.
Hatfield, noting that he is ``not one of the Senate's millionaires,'' gets about half his campaign money from PACs and usually boosts his Senate salary to the maximum through honorariums for speeches. He also voted to raise senatorial pay.
Lonsdale is positioning himself in the mainstream on two other issues. He chides Hatfield for voting to deregulate the savings and loan industry and to keep the S&L bailout ``off budget.'' And while Hatfield said sending American troops to Saudi Arabia was ``premature,'' Lonsdale stands with President Bush (and a majority of voters) in backing the move.
Through it all, Mark Hatfield quietly works the towns and rural communities he has represented for decades. He doesn't need the ``political theater'' of debates, he says, to win their continued trust.
Analyst Lunch notes, however, that since the near-depression in timber country in the early 1980s, the state population has shifted toward urbanites with different values and allegiances: ``There's now a significant number of voters in the state who don't have the same emotional and philosophical attachment to Hatfield that older voters do.''
Will those changes - and the hot-button issues Lonsdale is pushing, plus the media blitz he kicked off over the weekend - make enough of a difference for the Democratic challenger? The next eight weeks will tell.