Oregon AG race was major upset

Oregon AG race was major upset
Dwight Holton and Ellen Rosenblum (AP photos)

Entering the Democratic primary, former federal prosecutor Dwight Holton looked like he was going to walk into the Oregon attorney general's office.

But then a late poll showed him trailing former appeals court judge Ellen Rosenblum badly. On election day, he fell under a landslide, losing every county but two in sparsely settled conservative Eastern Oregon farm country, and one of those was a tie. The overall margin was 65 percent for Rosenblum, to 35 percent for Holton.

"It was not surprising that she won," said pollster Tim Hibbitts. "What is surprising is the size of the margin."

While his tough stance against medical marijuana got a lot of attention, especially when it was put up against Rosenblum's assertion that she would make prosecution of marijuana a low priority, Hibbitts and other observers say it was a lot of little things that added up to make voters reject Holton. He ran a law-and-order campaign in a primary that would be decided by liberals, with ads that were just not as good as Rosenblum's.

Rosenblum got the benefit of a strong vote by women, the liberal leaning of a small turnout, and a key infusion of cash from marijuana supporters. Rosenblum was seen by voters as an Oregonian, and Holton an outsider.

In the end, endorsements from every major newspaper and most of the sheriffs and district attorneys made no difference for Holton.

"He had every institutional advantage you can have," said Josh Kardon, former chief of staff to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and now a lobbyist. "Why they thought they could win an Oregon Democratic primary with ads designed for a boring general election race is a question I assume will go unanswered."

Holton and his campaign did not return telephone calls for comment.

Holton, 46, served as interim U.S. attorney for Oregon, but did not win the White House nod for the permanent post. While in office, he oversaw the sting that netted Mohamed Mohamud, the Somalia-born Oregon State University student charged with plotting to set off a car bomb at the Portland Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Before Holton left office last year, federal agents raided a half dozen medical marijuana gardens in Southern Oregon, but no one was arrested until last month, when indictments alleged some of the pot was being sold illegally in Washington state.

Rosenblum, 61, was a federal prosecutor in Eugene and Portland for nine years before she was appointed a trial-court judge in 1989. She became an Oregon Court of Appeals judge in 2005 and stepped down from the bench earlier this year. She said she would make prosecuting marijuana a low priority, prompting support from marijuana advocates.

"I would like to think this will send a signal to all the old school drug warriors out there that you can't climb the career ladder on the backs of medical marijuana patients," said marijuana legalization activist Bob Wolfe. "If you are a Democrat, you will never run on an anti-marijuana platform again."

Hibbitts said marijuana was a factor, but more from the campaign cash it gave Rosenblum at a key point in the campaign than from voters rejecting Holton for being tough on pot growers. Hibbitts added that women account for 58 percent of registered Democrats, and vote at a slightly higher rate in primaries than men. That doesn't mean women will vote for a woman just because she is a woman. But they will vote for a woman who shows she is qualified for the job, as Rosenblum did.

Political consultant Len Bergstein agreed.

"I thought when she lost the endorsements from The Oregonian and the Register Guard she was toast," said Bergstein. "She soldiered on, if you will and got an infusion of money from the marijuana reform crowd. She got a great ad on the air and caught a wave. And she was the right candidate for a very narrow and small electorate."

Jim Moore, who teaches political science at Pacific University, said with no exit polling, the question of why Holton lost so badly may never be fully understood.

"This says that somewhere in the Democratic Party of Oregon, there is an amazing schism, and the first person to figure out what that is will be somebody able to figure out — if they are on the Republican side — how to finally win an election in this state," he said. "If they are on the Democratic side, it will be a way to kind of surf the wave, and make sure the other side never wins an election.

"But what it is remains a bit of a mystery right now."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.