In Close Race for State Senate, Money Talks–With Great Civility

Summary: Although Democrat Barbara Ross and Republican Frank Morse have raised $497,934, they have eschewed attack ads

For nearly five months after the primaries, voters here watched the political equivalent of a baseball no-hitter: a $500,000 state Senate race without a single attack ad.

That race is one of a half-dozen that could swing legislative control this election, and it pits Barbara Ross, a Democrat who served three terms in the Oregon House, against Frank Morse, a Republican businessman making his first political bid. They are vying for an open seat in District 8, which includes Corvallis and Albany.

Each of the six high-stakes races has attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars, and all but the Ross-Morse matchup got ugly early.

Now, six days before ballots are due, outside groups have tossed a stream of hit ads into the Morse-Ross campaign. Like a single in the ninth inning, they’ve broken up what was arguably Oregon’s last clean, close Senate race.

While both candidates have so far stuck to their own virtues, the change illustrates how difficult it has become to keep negative advertising out of campaigns.

“I’d like to think campaigns could be run more on content than on attacking your opponent,” Morse said. “I think the public gets sick of it.”

For Ross, it comes down to conviction. “Frank is an honorable man, and I don’t feel the need to attack him,” she said.

If negative ads often are the dominant mode, voters shouldn’t be surprised.

“Negative information tends to be the most powerful information,” Chuck Adams, a Republican consultant, said. “I can’t remember a (tight) race that went this long without more fireworks.”

Portland television stations, which broadcast on Albany cable, have aired attack ads from metro-area Senate candidates for weeks.

For example, viewers have seen Rep. Charlie Ringo, a Beaverton Democrat, accuse opponent Rep. Bill Witt of blocking a bill to ban guns on school buses — and Witt, a Cedar Mill Republican, accuse Ringo of ineffectiveness for only passing one bill in the House.

Closer to home, however, the rhetoric had been muted. Ross and Morse have combined to raise $497,934, and bought lots of issue-oriented ads with the cash.

Morse is a self-described fiscal conservative and social moderate from Albany who built his fortune as president of Morse Bros. Inc., an aggregate company. He touts a “business model” for the state budget, controlling costs and prioritizing spending. Both Democrats and Republicans tried to recruit him to run for Senate.

Ross, a Corvallis resident who was term-limited out of the House after the 1999 session, has been a Benton County commissioner and a school board member. She’s pushing her record as an advocate for senior citizens, schools and the environment, along with her experience handling government budgets.

Their civility — which analysts attribute partly to personalities and partly to political strategizing — lasted until last week, when a pair of groups supporting Morse questioned Ross’ record on crime and the Pledge of Allegiance in mailings.

Ross’ campaign manager said the mailings are evidence of negative campaigning by Morse, though Morse didn’t pay for them. Morse said he can’t control outside groups’ ads, and he accused Democrats of using a negative tool of their own — “push-polls” — in their campaign.

Negativity has become the norm in Oregon politics when races are tight. Analysts say attack ads get voters’ attention and help candidates distinguish themselves.

Adams, the Republican consultant, said first-time candidates such as Morse often shun negative ads — at least until their opponents attack.

So far, Ross hasn’t hit Morse. Analysts say it’s practical: It’s tough to attack Morse on a legislative record he doesn’t have.

With the race looking close last week, both candidates worried third parties could break the calm. Midweek, voters in the district received letters from Crime Victims United, a Lake Oswego-based group that supports Morse.

The letter mentions the murder of two Oregon City teenage girls this year and the sniper killings in Washington, D.C. Then it criticizes Ross for votes on criminal justice issues while in the House.

Later in the week, a mailer from Keizer-based Citizens for a Sound Economy said Ross “wants to stop the traditional practice of children standing and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.” It cites a 1997 quote from Ross, then a school board member and state representative, saying students should know the Pledge, but that she opposed requiring them to say it regularly.