Feisty Oregon Candidate Defies Schumer

Posted April 15, 2008 at 6:41pm

In seeking to upset state Speaker Jeff Merkley in the Oregon Democratic Senate primary next month, attorney Steve Novick is fighting against a Capitol Hill powerbroker with a proven record of shepherding his preferred candidate to victory: Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.).

In 2006, Schumer muscled now-Sens. Bob Casey (Pa.) and Jim Webb (Va.) to Democratic primary wins despite some resistance at the state party level. But Novick could be on track to upend Merkley, whom Schumer recruited to run against Sen. Gordon Smith (R) and whom he has continued to assist with infrastructure and strategic advice throughout the primary campaign.

“I think it’s a tossup,” said Lisa Grove, a Portland-based Democratic pollster. “Understanding that Merkley is going to have more money, my sense is that he is going to have more — but not a lot more. This is just a funny place, and it’s going to be a funny primary.”

Merkley partisans argue that the Speaker will emerge as the clear choice of Democratic candidates once voters become more aware of the two candidates — public polling that has shown Novick competitive, or even ahead, has also shown the vast majority of Democratic voters to be undecided.

Novick began running statewide and targeted television ads early in the race to generate name identification and get the jump on Merkley, who initially ignored his primary opponent in favor of focusing on Smith. But Merkley in recent weeks has turned his fire on Novick. Last week he went up with two rotating spots on statewide TV, and the DSCC expects his advantage in resources to be one of the many reasons why he’ll put Novick away.

“Jeff Merkley has a great story to tell and a message that clearly resonates with voters, and since he started telling that story on television, we’ve seen Oregonians rallying to his candidacy,” said DSCC spokesman Matthew Miller. “Jeff Merkley can beat Gordon Smith, and the Republicans obviously know it, which is why they started attacking him in the primary.”

If nothing else, some Democrats believe that Novick’s spirited challenge to Merkley, who is making his first run for statewide office, will make him a more battle-tested candidate against Smith in the fall.

Merkley raised $455,000 in the first three months of the year, to close the quarter with $489,000 on hand. Novick raised and banked less than that, bringing in $346,000 for the quarter, to finish the period with $195,000 on hand. Smith raised a hefty $1.2 million, and reported $5.1 million on hand as of March 31.

Merkley, Novick, and a long-shot candidate, Realtor Candy Neville (D), were scheduled to participate Tuesday evening in the first televised debate of the campaign. All voting in Oregon is done by mail, and ballots are set to be mailed out to voters by the Secretary of State’s office beginning May 2. The primary date is May 20.

Underscoring the quirkiness of the Beaver State’s electorate, Neville is beginning to be seen as a viable candidate in some quarters, with the Portland Oregonian newspaper running a story on her in Tuesday’s paper with the headline: “From Obscure to Strong in Senate Race.”

However, the real contest is between Merkley and Novick — and most Democrats who have observed the race since its inception view it as one of style over substance.

Novick, who previously worked as a political consultant for Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) and several issue-advocacy campaigns, has been a feisty campaigner who has played up his short height — he is 4-foot-9 — and the fact that he has a hook in place of the left hand that he was born without. He has aggressively campaigned for an immediate end to the Iraq War, nationalizing health care and raising capital gains taxes.

Merkley has run as the slightly more reserved establishment candidate that he is. His campaign notes that Merkley worked as a Democratic leader with a one-vote majority in the state House of Representatives to pass “progressive” legislation that required the support of Republican members. The Speaker’s team argues that Novick is all talk, while Merkley has a record of turning Democratic policies into law.

Merkley’s supporters, with Sen. Ron Wyden (D) and in some ways Smith as their models, believe that Oregonians tend to elect statewide politicians who exhibit a calm demeanor and govern in an independent, bipartisan fashion. Those are some of the reasons they support Merkley.

However, Novick’s campaign believes voters are fed up with Washington, D.C., and are looking for someone who speaks his mind and stands up for principle, even if a few feathers are ruffled in the process. Novick’s team says its view of the race is backed up by the fact that Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), perceived as the “change” candidate in the Democratic White House primary, is favored at this point to win Oregon’s May 20 presidential primary.

A Republican insider based in Oregon partially agreed with that assessment, saying that Smith could be in trouble this fall, even though he has done a good job of creating separation between himself and unpopular GOP policies.

“The electorate out here is very change- oriented,” Novick campaign spokesman Jake Weigler said. Merkley “received a majority of endorsements early in the race to create the aura of inevitability. But the reality is — despite all of the endorsements — Steve’s been moving ahead while Merkley’s been stalled.”

Oregon voted Democratic in the last five presidential elections, and continues to trend blue. The Democrats in 2006 took control of the state Legislature for the first time in many years — Merkley was a central figure in that effort — and this year continues to look perilous for Republicans in the Beaver State.

Not only is Smith one of Schumer’s top targets, but Obama heading the Democratic ticket could boost the party’s numbers down ticket, including those of the eventual Senate nominee. But the Smith campaign believes that its candidate is nevertheless well positioned for re-election.

Smith campaign spokesman R.C. Hammond said Tuesday that the Senator has a 15-year record in the state Legislature and in Congress of representing Oregon’s interests above political interests.

Hammond noted that Smith recently worked with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the 2004 presidential runner-up, on legislation because it was the right thing to do for his constituents. Hammond said he expects voters to reward Smith accordingly on Nov. 4.

“Oregonians are looking for an independent thinker,” Hammond said. Smith is the “only person in the race who can claim a 15-year career of independence and effectiveness.”