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The lessons out of Oregon

For campaign watchers, Florida's Republican presidential primary was the big draw yesterday, but there was another noteworthy race on the other side of
The lessons out of Oregon
The lessons out of Oregon

For campaign watchers, Florida's Republican presidential primary was the big draw yesterday, but there was another noteworthy race on the other side of the country: a U.S. House special election in Oregon's 1st congressional district.

Just two weeks ago, the National Republican Congressional Committee took an interest in the race, airing attack ads against Democratic candidate Suzanne Bonamici. The GOP candidate, Rob Cornilles, even released an internal poll showing him trailing by only four points.

Yesterday, however, it became clear Republicans were chasing a mirage.

Democrat Suzanne Bonamici swept to victory Tuesday in Oregon's 1st Congressional District, continuing her party's nearly four-decade-long hold on the seat covering the northwestern corner of the state.With the bulk of ballots counted, Bonamici was defeating Republican Rob Cornilles by about 15 percentage points in the special election to fill the seat left vacant by the resignation of Democrat David Wu in August.

The results in Oregon are likely heartening to Democrats -- a loss would have been characterized as a major setback for the party -- but this leads to a related question: do special election victories offer clues about what's to come in a general election?

Let's flesh this out a bit, looking at the last few cycles. In the 109th Congress (2005 and 2006), going into the November 2006 midterms, there were four U.S. House special elections -- Republicans won three, Democrats won one, and neither party flipped any seats. Did this offer hints about the Democratic wave that would sweep the GOP out of their majorities in both chambers? Obviously not.

In the 110th Congress (2007 and 2008), going into Election Day in November 2008, there were 12 U.S. House special elections -- Republicans won four, Democrats won eight, and Dems successfully turned three "red" seats "blue." Were these Democratic gains an "omen" of things to come? Maybe a little.

But in the 111th Congress (2009 and 2010), going into the 2010 midterms, there were 10 U.S. House special elections -- Republicans won two, Democrats won eight. Of particular interest, from March '09 to May '10, Dems won seven straight special elections, even flipping one district Republicans had held for more than a century. Did this offer evidence of the burgeoning Republican wave? Not even a little.

So far in the 112th Congress (2011 and 2012), there have been five U.S. House special elections -- Republicans have won two, Democrats have won three, and each have flipped a seat previously held by the other party. What does this tell us about the 2012 elections? Not much.

That's not to say, however, that the Oregon race is irrelevant. Sarah Kliff noted yesterday that much of this special election was focused on Medicare -- and that's going to matter a great deal in November.

Cornilles has indeed gone after Bonamici and her support for the Affordable Care Act, accusing her in a recent television ad (above) of "supporting a plan that takes $500 billion from Medicare, raises taxes and hurts seniors." The Democratic Party of Oregon has countered by linking Cornilles to the Budget Chair Rep. Paul Ryan's budget that would transform Medicare into a voucher program. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee here in Washington has also advanced similar attacks.Fact-checking organizations have scrutinized both claims and found them not completely accurate. Nevertheless, these look to be the messages that the parties have settled on, and for good political reason. To describe Medicare as a politically fraught issue would be an understatement: Changes to the program are rarely, if ever, a winning issue. Kaiser Family Foundation tracking polls have found 43 percent of seniors believe Medicare will be "worse off" after the Affordable Care Act. Likewise, just 30 percent of seniors support restructuring Medicare into a system where they use subsidies to shop for private coverage, as the Ryan plan would do.

It makes the Oregon race a test case of sorts, with both parties giving their Medicare messages a trial run. Democrats have to be far more satisfied than Republicans with the results.