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Democrat Wyden Wins U.S. Senate Race in Oregon

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Democrat Ron Wyden scored a narrow victory Tuesday in the race for Oregon’s vacant U.S. Senate seat, holding off the millionaire Republican candidate who outspent him 2 to 1 in the bruising finish to the first major election of 1996.

With 87% of the vote counted late Tuesday night in the nation’s first major mail-in election, Wyden led Republican Gordon Smith, 48% to 47%.

Wyden’s margin had been holding steady as the last votes trickled in and his campaign spokeswoman said Smith called to concede shortly after 10:30 p.m.

Earlier, a subdued Smith, appearing before hundreds of cheering supporters, said he would not concede the race until the last vote was counted.

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“The fact of the matter is there are an awful lot of votes yet to be counted, with a 1% margin. An awful lot of those votes come from where I live, and I want to make sure that they have an opportunity to speak too,” Smith said.

But he called Wyden “a worthy and good competitor,” and said, “In the end, democracy is well served because we live in a country where we can engage in this debate.”

Secretary of State Phil Keisling said the use of the mail-in ballots provided a uniform geographic spread to the count that made it unlikely that the vote margins would change considerably as counting drew to a close.

Wyden becomes the first Democrat elected to the Senate from Oregon since 1962.

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In a campaign that pitted Wyden, a 46-year-old Portland congressman, and his liberal urban base in Portland and Eugene against Smith’s strongholds in the logging and farming communities of rural Oregon, Wyden’s unexpectedly strong showing in Portland appeared to provide one of the keys to the race.

He captured 67% of the vote in Portland’s Multnomah County. Wyden supporters said his calls for stronger environmental regulation and protection of key social programs like Medicare helped him prevail over Smith, the 43-year-old state Senate president who appealed for a balanced budget, work for welfare and more “balance” in environmental regulation.

The suburbs around Portland, rapidly growing neighborhoods of young families widely seen as the decision point over issues like abortion and women’s rights, edged slightly toward Wyden throughout the night.

By mid-evening, state Republican Party Chairman Randy Miller said it was beginning to appear that voters might be less inclined to listen to Republicans’ message about tax cutting in an era of relative economic prosperity. “At a time like that, people may start looking at some of the social issues,” Miller said.

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Environmental groups, which poured more than $200,000 into an independent expenditure campaign to defeat Smith, said Wyden’s win was a reflection of the importance voters place on clean water and clean air.

“This election should put candidates on notice that you cannot vote against the environment with impunity,” said Sarah Anderson of the League of Conservation Voters.

The election, widely seen as a barometer of the 1996 election year, was called after the resignation last fall of longtime Republican Sen. Bob Packwood, who faced sexual harassment charges.

With Wyden’s win, the new makeup of the Senate will be 53 Republicans, 47 Democrats.

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Early in the campaign, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said the race “presents us with a great opportunity not only to gain a seat, but to redefine the political environment as we head into the 1996 cycle.”

Ultimately, if the Senate race proves anything, it may be that neither party has a lock on voters’ hearts going into the 1996 presidential race. As with many other states, the fastest growing bloc of voters in Oregon is registered as independent.

And the very closeness of the race indicates a profound split in the political psyche that could play out throughout the 1996 campaign season.

Voters polled during the last five days of the 3-week-long balloting indicated that the same issues that drive the national political debate--abortion rights, education, taxes, the federal budget negotiations and the environment--proved decisive factors in how they voted in the Oregon Senate race.

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But nearly half of the voters surveyed by the Voters News Service, a cooperative of the four major television networks and the Associated Press, said they did not view the senate contest as a referendum on the GOP congressional agenda or President Clinton’s policies.

State election officials said turnout among the 1.8 million registered voters would almost certainly reach 65%. “We set a record tonight. This is far and away the highest turnout in a special election in Oregon history,” Keisling said.

Political groups from across the country sent money and troops to Oregon to join the fight, and a flood of money poured into the campaigns in recent days, more than 85% of it from outside Oregon. The contributors ranged from director Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks movie studio partners David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg on the Democratic side to Texas oilman Roy M. Huffington and Coca Cola, Arco and Texaco for Smith.

Smith, who injected $2 million of his own money into the campaign, raised $4.3 million and spent much of it on a television blitz during the mail balloting period. Wyden raised $3.2 million.

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The two candidates drew a clear line on issues such as balancing the budget, federal timber policy and tax cuts for the middle class that echoed much of the present political debate in Washington. But at times, both candidates sought a middle course.

Smith, for example, declined to come out for an outright ban on early-term abortions; Wyden, a traditional supporter of senior citizens and one of the founders of the Gray Panthers, proposed his own package of Medicare cuts.

Along with clues the contest might provide about the rest of the election year, the race provided political analysts a chance to examine a host of issues relating to the conduct and impact of vote-by-mail.

Oregon State University student body president Jon Isaacs said he counted 110 unclaimed student ballots at a single fraternity, an example of what he said is mail balloting’s potential for disenfranchising young and low-income people who move frequently.

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Keisling, said the mail ballot reflects the new reality of families who often can’t get to the polls on a single election day.


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