For months, Democrats have labeled Republican Rob Cornilles a Tea Party-er in order to persuade voters that he’s not as moderate as he claims. In TV commercials, on websites and in press releases Cornilles has been called the "original Tea Party candidate" or shorthanded as just "Tea Party politician Rob Cornilles."
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee put up a website called teapartycornilles.comand started a twitter account for @TPartyCornilles. Its first campaign ad in the race features Cornilles saying "I was the original Tea Party candidate" from a May 2010 forum.
The Democratic Party of Oregon has jumped in, just as eagerly. In a press release issued Nov. 27, 2011, Democratic Party of Oregon executive director Trent Lutz chastised Cornilles for running on a "far-right tea party platform" in 2010 and then trying to refashion himself as a moderate in 2012.
"When Rob Cornilles brands himself ‘the original tea party candidate’ one year and then tries to align himself with the Occupy movement … voters are right to be skeptical about whether he has any convictions beyond getting himself elected to office."
As Democrats have taken advantage of this term, we thought it might be helpful to flesh out the origin of the statement and judge the accuracy of its use.
Here’s what Cornilles said in its entirety at a meeting of the Executive Club in May, 2010:
"I was the original Tea Party candidate because like the Tea Party movement, I got off the couch and I decided to run for office. I am the longest tenured candidate running for Congress of all five districts in the state of Oregon. You tell me that doesn't summarize and epitomize what the Tea Party movement is all about."
For party Democrats, that’s all the evidence they need. He said it, therefore he’s a Tea Party candidate. (Democrats often repeat just the first part of his quote.) The rest of us are probably scratching our heads: Why is he talking about getting off the couch? How does that make him a Tea Party original?
We got some more clarity on his thoughts in a 2011 interview on KGW’s Straight Talk, which the Democratic Party of Oregon posted to its website, the realrobcornilles.com. He was asked: How closely do you affiliate with the Tea Party?
"Well, I really don’t know what we mean when we say Tea Party, quite frankly. If we mean that the Tea Party is made up of individuals who decided to get up off the couch and actually hold their elected officials accountable, who decided to do more than just yell at the TV and become active and involved in the political process, then I think everybody who is paying attention right now is a part of that movement." [News Channel 8, KGW.com, 4:55, 10/15/11]
More recently, Cornilles told KATU's Steve Dunn that the Tea Party quote from the Executive club meeting was taken out of context, and reiterated the explanation he gave to KGW.
Moreover, the Oregon Tea Party, which is not a political third party, has rejected Cornilles, saying that the group does not plan to endorse any candidate in the special election, nor is it affiliated with a specific party. The group’s John Kuzmanich said that as much as he prefers Cornilles over Democrat Suzanne Bonamici, Cornilles does not hold core Tea Party values.
For example, Cornilles has refused to call President Obama’s 2010 health care reform legislation ‘Obamacare,’ as some other Republicans do, and said in a debate last year that he wouldn’t waste time trying to repeal it, Kuzmanich said.
Just as alarming to Kuzmanich, Cornilles has stated he understands why we need a new Columbia River Crossing and at one point wanted to turn Portland’s Memorial Coliseum into a multimedia production space-- when neither project reflects the group’s main tenets of limited government, fiscal responsibility and free market principles.
On the other side, the DPO’s Lutz has no problem sticking a group label on a candidate when that group has rejected that candidate.
"I don’t think we’ve gone too far in depicting the story," Lutz said. "I think it’s holding him accountable to where he was two years ago."
Amber Moon, a spokeswoman with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said it’s more than just his truncated quote from the Executive Club meeting. Cornilles is collecting money from a tea party political action committeeand he appeared at a 9/12 Project forum in early 2010, where he said that he had attended tea party meetings for "months and months and months."
"The evidence speaks for itself," Moon said, "and he speaks for himself."
What’s PolitiFact Oregon to think? We go back to the original question. When we first heard the claim, we thought nothing of it. But the onslaught of websites, tweets, promoted tweets, commercials and press releases made us ask ourselves: Is it true that he’s a Tea Party candidate?
Certainly he’s a Republican candidate. Certainly Republicans who identify with Tea Party values are more aligned with Cornilles over the Democrat in the race. Certainly, Cornilles courted such voters in 2010, when the movement was more popular than it is now.
But let’s go back to the tenets of the Oregon Tea Party, as espoused by Kuzmanich and repeated by the national Tea Party Patriots: limited government, fiscal responsibility and free market principles. Instead, Cornilles supports the Columbia River Crossing and finds deportation of illegal immigrants impractical and won’t sign a pledge to oppose new taxes. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., he’s not.
Democrats say Cornilles called himself the original Tea Party candidate, but he was referring to the grass-roots nature of the party, not idealogy. Democrats point to Cornilles’ opposition to abortion as evidence of his extremism, but there are lots of Republicans who feel as he does and aren’t considered Tea Party activists.
Is he pandering? Blowing smoke? That’s for voters to decide. We will note that Cornilles has been more willing to buck his party this cycle than Bonamici has. So we’re not sure how that makes him a "Tea Party" candidate. The statement contains an element of truth -- he said those things in 2010 -- but ignores critical facts, such as his platform and his lack of endorsement from the Oregon Tea Party.
We rule the statement Mostly False.