PORTLAND, Ore. — Democrats in Washington are pouring more than $450,000 into the special election in Oregon's 1st Congressional District, calling their spending an insurance policy to protect a seat that they have held for more than three decades.
While President Barack Obama won the district with nearly 63 percent of the vote in 2008 and the party holds a 12-percentage point edge in voter registration, Democrats are acting as though they smell danger.
They want to ensure they don't face a public relations embarrassment when voters go to the polls next month to select a replacement for David Wu, who resigned in the wake of a sex scandal.
"It's a sign that in this environment we're taking nothing for granted and we're being hyper-aggressive," said Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It's also meant to be a signal to Republicans that we're going to run aggressively everywhere and anywhere."
The DCCC has spent about $460,000 on television ads, according to federal records, and has reserved additional air time that could increase the buy to nearly $1.1 million.
So far, national Republicans are not investing resources into the race and have made no commitment to doing so, which indicates they believe Republican candidate Rob Cornilles is still a longshot to pull out a victory over the Democratic nominee, Suzanne Bonamici.
Rep. Pete Sessions, who oversees the Republican congressional campaign efforts, said Democrats know the outcome is uncertain and that the ad buys in Portland reflect that Cornilles is making inroads with voters by focusing on the issues of jobs and trade.
"If they're going to win that seat, they're going to have to go win it," said Sessions, declining to directly answer whether national Republicans will weigh in with any significant resources. "You will be seeing what we're doing."
Cornilles said he's not frustrated that national Republicans have so far declined to invest in the race.
"I knew going in, as an independent voice, I'm not one who's going to be answering to the party establishment or to any outside interest," Cornilles said. "On the other hand, she is now beholden to them."
Bonamici raised about $655,000 before the November primary, about $100,000 more than Cornilles. The campaigns have not yet had to report more up-to-date fundraising figures to the Federal Election Commission.
"I think it's wise that the DCCC has decided to be cautious," Bonamici campaign manager Carol Butler said of the spending by national Democrats. "Because frankly, Rob Cornilles is a very slick salesperson."
Wu resigned in August amid allegations he made an unwanted sexual advance on an 18-year-old woman. At the time, he also battled reports that several staff members resigned en masse because of his bizarre behavior in the 2010 campaign.
Last year, voters punished the political party of lawmakers resigning as a result of scandal.
First, Democratic Rep. Kathleen Hochul won an upstate New York district that had been held by Republican Rep. Chris Lee, who resigned after a gossip website published emails he sent to a woman he met on Craigslist.
Republicans turned the tables a few months later when Republican Rep. Bob Turner won the New York City district held by Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner, who quit after sending sexually provocative tweets and text messages to women he met online.
If a similar scenario were to occur in Oregon, Republicans would portray the upset as a referendum on Democratic policies nationally. Such a defeat would also send the message that Democrats are stumbling badly in their bid to retake the House.
Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said the spending is a small and smart investment given the stakes involved.
"If you win, it's a blip on the screen because everyone assumed you were going to win," he said.
"If you wind up losing, the amount of damage control you have to do to try and explain will be significant, and that impacts resources. It impacts people's perceptions. It impacts the story line," Lehane said.
Republicans have been burned before in the Northwest Oregon district, which has been represented by Democrats since 1975.
Wu was consistently re-elected by comfortable margins, sometimes against strong and well-funded GOP challengers, despite consistent questions about his sometimes bizarre behavior.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has so far focused its resources in Oregon on softening support for Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader, who represents a competitive seat that the GOP has long believed it can win.
The NRCC has spent about $15,000 on television ads targeting Schrader in a race that's nearly a year away and still has no Republican contender. In Schrader's district, a slim registration advantage for Democrats became even slimmer this year when state lawmakers redrew the district boundaries.
Kevin Freking reported from Washington, D.C.