For the past few cycles, Republicans have dreamed about finding the ideal challenger to Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.): a wealthy candidate with political contacts, able to appeal to Portland business leaders, suburban moderates and grassroots conservatives alike.
This year, the GOP has two candidates who fit that description. The question is whether the circumstance is an embarrassment of riches, or simply an embarrassment.
For months, party leaders in both Oregon and Washington, D.C., have been high on Tim Phillips, the 37-year-old president of a major investment brokerage house in downtown Portland, who began raising money for the 1st district race in late spring. His third-quarter fundraising report showed that he had a healthy $265,000 on hand after taking in $93,000 during that period. But in late summer, Goli Ameri, a 47-year-old owner of a telecommunications consulting firm, also entered the race. And her fundraising totals after just a few weeks as an official candidate were eye-popping:$375,000 raised and $342,000 in the bank. Just $12,000 came from Ameri herself, her teenage son and her husband, who runs a prosperous real estate business.
Republican officials say they couldn’t be happier.
“We think they’re both great candidates,” said Carl Forti, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Both have shown an ability to raise money, which means both should have a great opportunity to beat Wu.”
Amy Casterline, executive director of the Oregon Republican Party, agreed.
“I think having two strong candidates, and such well-funded candidates, speaks volumes to the feeling that the incumbent isn’t measuring up,” she said.
Still, the prospect of an unexpected, costly and hard-to-predict primary cannot be welcome news for GOP leaders, who believe they at least have a chance of knocking off Wu in a district that extends from downtown Portland, through the high-tech suburban corridor and timber country, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Although Al Gore received 50 percent of the vote there during the 2000 White House election, President Bush is planning a major push in Oregon next year, and Republicans believe the GOPHouse nominee in the 1st district could benefit from an aggressive Bush campaign.
But instead of spending the next year focusing on Wu, Republican activists and potential donors instead will spend the six months before the GOP primary sizing up the candidates and taking sides.
“I’m very concerned about draining resources,”Phillips conceded. “But that’s politics, and that’s life.”
Among the many similarities between Ameri and Phillips, both are members in good standing of the finance committee of Oregon’s Republican Sen. Gordon Smith, which, GOP insiders said, has put Smith in a bit of an awkward position. Both have donated heavily to Republican candidates and causes and to Portland-area charities.
Ameri, who grew up in Iran and whose family fled the country during the 1979 revolution that toppled the shah, said she sees the primary as a healthy affirmation of democracy.
“I think this is truly the best thing that’s happened to the Oregon Republican Party in years,” said Ameri, whose family never returned to Iran to live.
She also praises Phillips as “a good guy and a good candidate.” Phillips says he’s looking forward to a clean primary campaign.
Still, many political observers expect the primary race to become nasty.
“It’s healthy seeing two viable candidates bringing attention to the 1st and to defeating Wu,” said one knowledgeable Republican operative. “On the downside, they’re going to go after each other, and they’re both very proud, very competitive people.”
Already there is buzz about some of Phillips’ supporters trying to talk Ameri out of the race, and both candidates appear ready to play hardball.
“I don’t think Tim was anointed by anyone,” Ameri said. “He just happened to file two and a half months before I did.”
Ameri argues that her compelling family history makes her better equipped to compete with Wu in a general election.
“My story’s far more intriguing and interesting than his is,” she said of Wu, a fellow Stanford graduate who is the third Chinese-American to serve in Congress. But implicit in that remark is that her story is also more interesting than Phillips’.
“Someone like me’s the new face of the Republican Party,” Ameri said.
Phillips complains that a large chunk of Ameri’s contributions come from Iranian-Americans across the country, rather than from Oregonians. He said her “nationalistic money” is reminiscent of the support Wu received from Taiwanese-Americans in his first race.
“What does that money have to do with Oregon?”Phillips wondered. “What do they want with us?”
Phillips also said he has the advantage because in a district where jobs will be among the top issues, he has launched a business that employs more than 60 people.
“She has not created jobs,” he said of his primary foe.
While both candidates appear to be concentrating on fundraising, Ameri is now also trying to mobilize the Republican grassroots base on her behalf. She has joined a petition drive to put a referendum question on the 2004 ballot to overturn a recent tax hike approved by the Legislature and the governor. Working with a group called Oregon Citizens for a Sound Economy, she has already sent out mailings to 40,000 Republican households, with more to follow. And this week she began airing radio ads in support of the petition drive (organizers need to collect 50,000 signatures by Nov. 25 to put the measure on the ballot next year).
“That is the easiest thing to do to establish conservative credentials,” said one Oregon GOP strategist.
Both Phillips and Ameri are described by Republicans as mainstream conservatives who nominally support abortion rights, and both are assembling teams of A-list advisers. Ameri’s includes Tony Marsh as general and media consultant, and Chuck Adams, the leading GOP fundraising consultant in Oregon.
Phillips’ team includes Kieran Mahoney and Greg Strimple as general strategists, Chris Motolla for media, and Bob Moore for polling. Mahoney and Strimple worked on both of Smith’s Senate victories.
Republicans say the outcome of an Ameri-Phillips primary is impossible to predict at this early stage.
“They’re the kind of candidates that the base is excited about, but also the downtown Portland money crowd and the moderates,”Casterline said.
Democrats say they are not worried about Wu’s fate regardless of the GOP challenger. After winning his first race by a slim margin over a highly regarded Republican, Wu easily defeated conservatives in 2000 and 2002. He has proven to be a prodigious fundraiser, with more than $1 million in the bank as of Sept. 30.
“From our perspective, Wu is doing everything he needs to hold on to the seat,” said Kori Bernards, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.