January 31, 1996 in Nation/World

Wyden Narrowly Wins Oregon Senate Race

Associated Press

Democratic Rep. Ron Wyden survived a dismal performance on a pop quiz and attacks labeling him a tax-and-spend liberal to narrowly win a special Senate election Tuesday to replace Bob Packwood.

It was the nation’s first vote-by-mail congressional election.

With 87 percent of precincts reporting, Wyden had 551,301 votes or 48 percent; Republican Gordon Smith, a wealthy businessman and state Senate president, had 533,513 or 47 percent; and four other candidates divided the remainder. Oregon law does not require the winner to get a majority of all votes cast.

The victory buoyed the hopes of the national Democratic Party, which now has narrowed the Republicans’ Senate majority to 53-47. Both parties had billed the election as an early barometer for the 1996 national political season.

Wyden becomes the first Democrat elected to the Senate from Oregon since the 1960s. He will serve the nearly four years remaining in the term of Packwood, who resigned in disgrace last fall after being accused of sexual misconduct.

Smith called Wyden to offer his congratulations after earlier telling 500 supporters at a downtown hotel that he would wait to concede the race.

Wyden was winning heavily in the Portland area, his traditional stronghold, while Smith was leading in several smaller, rural counties.

During the campaign, Wyden suffered a humiliation when, during a Portland TV station’s pop quiz, he testily refused to estimate the price of a loaf of bread or a gallon of gas, and could not locate Bosnia on a globe.

Smith cast himself as a political newcomer, in contrast to Wyden, who was first elected to the House in 1980. He called Wyden a tax-and-spend Democrat, while Wyden portrayed Smith as an anti-abortion extremist.

Voting began three weeks ago and turnout had already surpassed 60 percent by Tuesday morning. More than 160 drop sites were available around the state for voters who waited too late to mail in their ballots or who simply preferred to vote on “Election Day.”

Elections officials estimate the mail-in balloting saved the state $1 million in the primary and general elections. In the final weeks of the campaign, the candidates used public records to find out who had voted and who hadn’t, and to go after those who hadn’t cast their ballots yet.

Dennis Smith was among the few voters who ventured out into the 20-degree cold to drop their ballots off in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square. He voted for Wyden.

“I think he sees that the small person, the working-class person, is the one who needs the help,” Smith said. “The working class and the poor, not the big business and the multimillionaires.”

In Grants Pass, Wayne Barrentine stopped in the empty courthouse lobby after working the graveyard shift at a wood products mill and dropped off ballots cast by himself, his wife, mother and son.

Barrentine said he voted for Smith, even though Barrentine supports abortion rights and Smith doesn’t. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s just the lesser of two evils,” he said. “I’m for someone who is for the people.”

Smith, owner of a frozen food company, contributed more than half the $3.7 million his campaign spent. Wyden spent almost $2.8 million, including about $250,000 he lent his campaign.

© Copyright 1996 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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