Democratic win in Oregon GOP loses Packwood seat: Liberal Ron Wyden is victor on ballot-by-mail election.

February 01, 1996

OREGON TO GINGRICH: The Republican Revolution stops at the state's eastern border, 117 degrees west longitude. The message may be overdrawn but the result is clear. For the first time since the defeat of the redoubtable Wayne Morse in 1968, Oregon is sending a Democrat to the United States Senate. He is a Portland congressman, Ron Wyden, the winner of the seat vacated by the unlamented Bob Packwood.

Mr. Wyden, who gained a certain notoriety by failing to locate Bosnia on a map during a TV pop quiz (he also didn't know the price of a loaf of bread or a quart of milk), defeated Republican state Senate President Gordon Smith. It was a stereotyped liberal-conservative contest that hardly did justice to Oregon's quirky kind of progressivism. The vote, however, was so close that only a Democratic spin doctor could accord it national significance and only a very brave soul would proclaim the end to Oregonian idiosyncrasy.

The next chapter will come in November in a race to succeed the retiring Mark Hatfield. During almost three decades of a Packwood-Hatfield stranglehold on the state's two Senate seats, the GOP had a winning formula: a pair of moderate Republicans with a Morse-like flare for defying party leadership that appealed to pivotal numbers of liberal Democrats. So what did the Grand Old Party do in this year of Speaker Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America"? It turned to a conservative who spent considerable time insisting he really was pro-environment and not against all abortions under any circumstance.

The Oregon election was notable in two other ways. Balloting for the first time was by mail, which saved money, gained greater voter participation, led to peak electioneering during the three-week period for mailing and eliminated the photo-op of citizens convivially gathering at the polling station. The stage is thus set for interminable national debate.

Equally intriguing was Mr. Wyden's decision to scrap all TV attack ads in the closing days of his campaign, a choice that seemingly was welcomed by voters sick of all the mud-slinging that marks contemporary politics. That, too, should be of interest to the country at large.

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