A Long Shot Who’s Also a Bellwether

Posted December 10, 2007 at 6:42pm

True, there’s only a remote possibility that attorney Steve Novick will beat Oregon Speaker Jeff Merkley in the Beaver State’s May 20 Senate Democratic primary.

But the pesky Novick, a policy wonk and longtime Democratic activist, isn’t going away, and the race to decide who gets to challenge two-term Sen. Gordon Smith (R) next November could prove a good test case for just how down on establishment politicians the public really is.

“I think [Novick] has a shot,” Adam Davis, an independent pollster based in Portland, Ore., said Monday. “If Steve has enough money to do anything — to get his message out, to kind of paint [Merkley] as part of the establishment, part of the Legislature, part of doing business as usual — our opinion is, quite frankly, he has a chance.”

Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall Inc., an independent polling firm in which Davis is a partner, surveyed 500 adults Dec. 1-3 and found that only 30 percent of the public approved of the Legislature. The poll, which had an error margin of 4.4 points, found Smith’s approval to be at 40 percent and Sen. Ron Wyden’s (D-Ore.) to be at 45 percent.

Novick’s advisers believe data like these spell trouble for Merkley, the odds-on favorite of many Oregon and Beltway political observers to win the primary.

Merkley has the support of most establishment Democrats in Oregon and virtually the entire Democratic establishment in Washington, D.C. — in particular the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Merkley has key advantages as well in fundraising and battle-tested campaign staff and advisers, and in fact has been running a frontrunner-style campaign focused much more on Smith than on Novick.

But the Novick campaign, while acknowledging its financial deficiency, believes its candidate is actually the safer bet against Smith. In a decidedly anti-incumbent political environment, Novick’s strategy is to convince primary voters that he is the most electable Democrat in the general election by running as a political outsider while simultaneously branding Merkley as a part of the establishment.

“Our chief argument is that right now the public is very down on elected officials in Washington and at the state and local level,” Novick campaign spokesman Jake Weigler said. “They are looking for someone who is going to shake things up.”

Democratic insiders say Merkley is doing everything he needs to do to cruise past Novick and lay a political foundation that will enable him to oust Smith.

Although his third-quarter Federal Election Commission fundraising report was viewed as a disappointment by some, one Democratic strategist based in Washington, D.C., said Merkley’s fundraising has picked up. Merkley entered the Senate race midway through the third quarter, and finished the period with $294,000 raised and $211,000 on hand, compared with Novick’s full-quarter figures of $125,000 raised and $219,000 on hand.

Another Democratic strategist, this one based in Oregon, said the campaign organization Merkley is assembling is putting him in a better position to win the primary. This strategist said the key question for Novick is: Is he solidifying the support of 15 percent to 20 percent of hard-core Democratic primary voters, or is he growing his base of support into the 35 percent to 40 percent range he’ll need to win the Democratic nominating contest?

Some Democratic insiders following the race closely say Merkley is more than the favorite in name only. They say he has the edge in all metrics that campaigns are judged on — and that Novick’s argument that Merkley is vulnerable because he is an incumbent state legislator is questionable.

“I don’t think there’s anyone who thinks Merkley won’t be the nominee,” said the Democratic strategist based in Washington, D.C. “The primary is a distraction, but not much more.”

The Merkley campaign doesn’t go so far as to dismiss Novick out of hand. The state Speaker’s campaign is monitoring its opponent and has moved to protect its left flank.

But most campaign activities that are conducted for public consumption make it appear as though Merkley is running against Smith, not Novick.

“We cannot wait until after the the May primary to focus on Gordon Smith. This is why we’re in the race,” Merkley campaign spokesman Russ Kelley said.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen who suffers more from the general anti-incumbent feeling that exists among voters if Merkley is the nominee.

Oregon voters are typically sympathetic to populist arguments — and Davis, the independent pollster, described the state’s electorate as particularly “change-oriented” at this time. He said Congress tends to fare worse in polling than the Oregon Legislature, which could give Merkley the advantage.

However, currently Smith is doing a good job of appealing to moderate voters and is supported by a significant number of Democrats. Consequently, the outcome of a Merkley-Smith matchup is tough to predict.

“We have a lot of Democrats giving Smith favorable ratings right now,” Davis said. “But that’s before the fire of the campaign.”