DeFazio once again challenged by Robinson

DeFazio once again challenged by Robinson
U.S. Congressman Peter Defazio is shown during an interview in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, April 11, 2012. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) - Two years ago, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio weathered a surprisingly strong challenge from tea party favorite Art Robinson, an independent research scientist in molecular biology, sheep farmer and producer of a home schooling curriculum who got major support from a New York hedge fund manager.

Robinson is challenging DeFazio again this year, and is considered unlikely to do any better than his 11-point loss in 2010. The super PAC contributions from Renaissance Technologies CEO Robert Mercer, which have financed independent attack ads against DeFazio, are less than half the $650,000 donated in 2010. Mercer is also a major contributor to Robinson's research lab. The Register-Guard newspaper has reported tax records show from 2005 to 2010 the Mercer Foundation made annual donations totaling $360,000 to Robinson's nonprofit Oregon Institute for Science and Medicine.

But the rematch continues to produce more than its share of unusual twists and turns.

"It's the best political theater in Oregon," said Jim Moore, assistant professor of political science at Pacific University and longtime observer of Congressional races in the state. The four other congressional races are all "snoozers," with incumbents — three Democrats and one Republican — facing only token challenges.

DeFazio is a populist Democrat seeking his 14th term in the 4th Congressional District, which covers a base of liberal voters in Eugene, and spreads out through conservative timber country around Coos Bay, Brookings, Roseburg and Grants Pass. DeFazio came to office the old fashioned way, learning the ropes as a congressional staffer, building name recognition as a Lane County Commissioner from the blue-collar city of Springfield, and surviving a tight three-way primary before first being elected to an open seat in 1986.

Like many of the Republican Party's candidates for major office in Oregon in recent years, Robinson is an outsider who did not take that traditional route.

He is a darling of the tea party, and symptomatic of the Oregon GOP's difficulty recruiting candidates for major office, said Moore.

An ardent constitutionalist who lives outside Cave Junction, far from the district's population center in Eugene-Springfield, Robinson is basing his campaign on a 410-page manifesto titled, "Common Sense In 2012," which he has mailed to more than 150,000 households in the district. It calls for creating jobs, balancing the budget, reducing the deficit, maintaining Social Security, Medicare and veterans benefits, and improving public schools.

"This is a basic debate between allowing the government to grow bigger and bigger and continue to intrude more in our lives, or reducing that intrusion into our lives and returning more to what the founders had in mind when they wrote the Constitution." Robinson said.

DeFazio snorts that the book is a brazen attempt by Robinson to moderate extreme views that failed to get him elected last time.

"It's a kind of parody of the much more sophisticated 'Etch A Sketch' (reset of political positions) that Mitt Romney is trying to pull," DeFazio said.

Two years ago, a campaign forum degenerated into name-calling, with Robinson calling DeFazio a "dishonorable liar," and DeFazio retorting with "pathological" — a comment Robinson proudly used as a cover quote on his book.

After the 2010 loss, Robinson wrote on a conservative website that Oregon State University was hounding two of his children out of the doctoral program in nuclear engineering because he was mounting a second challenge against DeFazio — accusations both the university and DeFazio denied.

Then Robinson's youngest son, Matthew, a graduate student in nuclear engineering at OSU, decided he disliked DeFazio so much, he would change his party registration from Republican to Democrat, and mount a last-minute challenge to the incumbent in the primary. The youngster won 10 percent of the vote.

The candidates have not come face-to-face for debate this time around. Robinson refused to appear at any of the traditional venues suggested by DeFazio, but offered to meet on Lars Larson's conservative radio show. DeFazio has refused to accept any format allowing Robinson to ask direct questions.

"People have not been amused by some of his bizarre antics," said DeFazio, who has been dispatching volunteers with video cameras to Robinson speeches. "His negatives are way up. And we are going to drive them a lot higher."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.