Both Sides Gird for Tough Battle in Oregon

Posted May 21, 2008 at 6:38pm

Round One in the highly competitive Oregon Senate race goes to Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.).

With state Speaker Jeff Merkley’s victory this week in Oregon’s Democratic Senate primary, Schumer’s hand-picked candidate yet again won a contested intraparty contest and now moves on to face heavily targeted incumbent Sen. Gordon Smith (R).

The DSCC, highly active on behalf of Merkley in his narrow win over upstart Portland attorney Steve Novick, was out with a poll on Wednesday that showed the newly minted Democratic nominee statistically tied with Smith. Look for Schumer to spend a considerable amount of the DSCC’s manpower and money to go toward pushing Merkley over the top in November.

“We’ll help in any way we can,” DSCC spokesman Matthew Miller said.

But it may not just be a straightforward Merkley-Smith matchup.

Independent candidate John Frohnmayer could be the wild card that swings the race for either Merkley or Smith, depending on how deep his support is able to penetrate. The Frohnmayer name is well-known in Oregon, although the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts is poorly funded and doesn’t appear intent on raising the money it will take to seriously compete in the general election.

Frohnmayer, who served at the NEA under President George H.W. Bush, is vehemently opposed to the Iraq War and is against the current Bush administration generally, and his candidacy could offer a home to Democrats, Republicans or independents who have soured on the two major political parties.

Oregon voters are predisposed to like unconventional candidates. In the Democratic Senate primary, an unknown nurse from Eugene, Candy Neville, garnered 7 percent of the vote on a shoestring budget. Merkley received 45 percent of the vote, and Novick finished close behind at 42 percent.

Smith, who had only nominal primary opposition, has generally been well-liked at home and is girding for battle. He closed the first quarter of this year with $5.2 million on hand, and began blanketing television and radio airwaves throughout the state with $500,000 worth of positive ads and spots critical of Merkley three weeks before Tuesday’s primary.

The second-term Senator is scheduled to go up with another statewide television ad-buy any day touting his credentials as a “moderate, bipartisan” and “independent” politician who works with Democrats and Republicans. The spot highlights Smith’s support for stem cell research, “health care for working families,” and a “cleaner environment.”

Smith campaign spokesman R.C. Hammond said the incumbent is prepared to navigate a political environment made perilous in Oregon by President Bush’s extreme unpopularity and the distaste for the GOP generally. In the DSCC poll, Bush’s approval rating cratered at 22 percent, but Hammond said Smith will survive because Oregonians will reward the Senator for his record of bipartisanship.

“People are sick of the status quo in politics — they’re sick of Republicans and Democrats bickering,” Hammond said. “They want someone who will get things done. They’re not so much worried about party.”

Except, that’s not necessarily the case, according to an independent pollster based in Portland.

Tim Hibbitts, of Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall Inc., said Smith is generally popular and should be favored for re-election — Hibbitts still classifies him as a slight favorite over Merkley. But Hibbitts said Smith is steadily being dragged toward a general election defeat by both Bush and the Republican Party.

Oregon has steadily trended left over the past decade, with the Democrats under Merkley’s leadership capturing control of the state House in the previous cycle and the GOP failing in 19 out of the last 22 statewide partisan races. But for all of that, Hibbitts believes Smith would still be in solid shape for a third term if not for the political environment.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), is leading the presumptive GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), by double digits in Oregon, Hibbitts added, and if the White House race in the Beaver State doesn’t tighten in the fall, Smith’s candidacy could face an additional anchor.

“I can’t overemphasize at this point how much damage Bush has done to the Republicans,” Hibbitts said. “It’s not so much about what Smith has or hasn’t done, it’s about the climate he has to deal with.”

The DSCC poll that found Merkley in a dead heat with Smith was taken May 12-16 by the Feldman Group. It surveyed 800 likely voters, and had a margin of error of 3.5 points.

In the poll, Smith took 45 percent to Merkley’s 42 percent, with 14 percent undecided. Perhaps more troubling for Smith if the poll is accurate, is his job approval rating in the poll was a dismal 29 percent, only 7 points higher than Bush’s. Additionally, the right-track/wrong-track numbers for the country as a whole were at 17 percent/71 percent.

Merkley spokesman Matt Canter said his candidate’s strategy was to tie Smith to Bush — on the Iraq War, on health care policy and on the economy. Canter indicated that Merkley will also attempt to drive a wedge between Smith and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

The two Senators have a non-aggression pact and often work together on issues, and Smith is likely to mention their bipartisan relationship on the stump. But Canter argued that Smith has voted the opposite of Wyden on the Senate floor nearly 1,700 times, while voting with Bush around 90 percent of the time.

With Democrats ascendent on almost every level in Oregon — the GOP didn’t even field a candidate this year for state attorney general — and Smith handicapped by an unpopular president, a distrusted political party and an unpopular war that Smith initially supported, Canter acknowledged that he expects an easy Merkley victory in November.

“Our campaign is confident, and Jeff Merkley is ready to start the debate with Gordon Smith,” Canter said. “He’s out of touch with the state, and he’s been doing the bidding of the Bush administration.”

While Merkley is busy running a national race against Smith, look for the incumbent to try and poison the challenger with local issues.

Smith hails from Pendleton, in northeastern Oregon, well outside of the state’s western urban core in Portland and Eugene. The Smith campaign believes Merkley, as demonstrated by his record in the Legislature, is weak on rural issues and matters of concern to Oregonians living in the central and eastern regions of the state. This thinking could translate into a line of attack against the challenger.

The Smith campaign also believes Merkley is weak on taxes. Oregon does not have a gross receipts tax, but the Smith campaign contends Merkley has supported implementing one in the past. That is just one among the several tax faux pas that the Republican’s team believes it can tar the challenger with.

“Now that the general election has begun, voters will have a chance to see their choices for Senate: the bipartisan independent voice of Sen. Smith or the extremist positions of Jeff Merkley,” said Rebecca Fisher, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “We are confident voters will re-elect Sen. Smith.”