Sabatos Crystal Ball

Oregon Races

Senate Outlook for 2008

Can Democrats Take Advantage of the Turf?

Mississippi Alabama Georgia South Carolina North Carolina Tennessee West Virginia Kentucky Virginia Delaware Rhode Island Massachusetts Maine New Hampshire Michigan Alaska Louisiana Arkansas Iowa Minnesota Texas Oklahoma Kansas Nebraska South Dakota New Mexico Colorado Wyoming Montana Idaho Oregon

View All Races

Oregon

Outlook: Toss-up


October 20, 2008 Update:

Let’s face it: Gordon Smith’s lead is gone. The incumbent Senator has gone from relative safety to one of the most endangered species of Senator around this year. State House Speaker Jeff Merkley has been hammering Smith on his ties to President George W. Bush, and the growing negativity of the race and concentration on economic issues makes this race eerily similar in dynamics to the Presidential election.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, flush with money, has come to Merkley’s aid as it has in numerous races across the country, in one instance running an ad portraying Smith as clearly in Bush’s corner of the boxing ring. Smith has been running as fast as he can away from the Bush administration this year, even putting up ads that tout his work with Sen. Barack Obama (forcing an amusing series of events in which Obama had to reiterate that he was actually supporting Merkley). Such ads, projecting the necessary image of a moderate Oregon Republican, have been combined with independent expenditures from the National Republican Senatorial Committee and others to paint Merkley as a democrat who just “taxes, spends, and borrows” in attempt to turn the economic crisis against the Democrat. Oregon is likely Obama country, however, and Smith has been reeling of late recently, with Merkley actually gaining a small lead in recent polls. This one will be a close one right down to November 4th, and the stakes are high as Republicans are desperate to hold on to every Senate seat they possibly can.

June 18, 2008 Update:

Republican Sen. Gordon Smith has managed to forge a successful political career in an unfriendly, Democratic environment. But he must always be careful to project a moderate image in order to win the swing independents that, when added to the GOP base, can produce victory in November. He has done so on issues ranging from Iraq to the environment, but will it be enough in 2008?

Once again, the Democratic nominee for President will be the favorite to carry Oregon, creating a headwind for Smith. (McCain has the potential to surprise here, though it is an uphill contest for any Republican.) Smith’s Democratic opponent will be state house speaker Jeff Merkley, who defeated attorney Steve Novick in a competitive May primary. It’s a close race. Based on Smith’s record, we give the early edge to the incumbent, though it could turn into a tense election for him.

May 21, 2008 Update:

State Speaker of the House Jeff Merkley will be the Democratic challenger to Republican incumbent Gordon Smith. Merkley held off his opponent, activist Steve Novick in yesterday’s Democratic primary. Barack Obama’s strong showing in the presidential aspect of the Democratic primaries could bode well for Merkley: if the electorate favors Obama, Merkley could ride his coattails to victory. But this far out, with the top of the ticket still uncertain, this race still leans in Smith’s favor.

April 14, 2008 Update:

If your mom’s rule about not being able to say something nice was a campaign law, then neither Democratic candidate would be allowed to say anything at all before next month’s primary. State Speaker of the House Jeff Merkley and attorney Steve Novick have taken every opportunity to snipe at one another over the last several months. Merkley has accused Novick of being divisive, as well as essentially a joke candidate, and Novick has responded in kind on several occasions. Both are buying up chunks of television advertising time to try and sling more mud than the other.

Oregon looks to be another shining example of a long-held trend in politics: the more vicious the nominating process for one party, the easier the general election should be on the other. Republican incumbent Gordon Smith must feel like he’s getting a second Christmas as he watches Merkley and Novick beat each other up. Oregon is a long-time Democratic stronghold when it comes to presidential campaigns, and Smith has had to fight to retain the seat he’s held for two terms now. He has both of the Democrats outpaced in campaign funds, and the longer he gets to sit on that wealth while his Democratic opponents spend theirs on in-fighting, the sweeter Smith’s seat becomes.

One important question mark in this race will be how the top of the ticket affects Smith and whichever Democrat emerges the least scarred. A strong Democratic nominee for President could heal some of the damage done by a protracted nomination process in Oregon, and maybe tilt the scales back toward the Blue. But considering how long the national process is taking, the effect could just be compounded. We won’t know for sure until November, but we like Smith’s odds for now.

December 14, 2007 Update:

Senator Gordon Smith (R) has managed to forge a successful political career in an unfriendly Democratic environment. But he must always be careful to project a moderate image in order to win the swing independents that, when added to the GOP base, can produce victory in November. He has done so on issues ranging from Iraq to the environment, but will it be enough in 2008? Once again, the Democratic nominee for President will be a strong favorite to carry Oregon again, creating a headwind for Smith. His likely Democratic opponent, state House Speaker Jeff Merkley, is a serious candidate who will eventually have solid party backing and financing. Still, based on Smith’s record, we give the early edge to the incumbent, though it could be a tense year for him.


Background

Incumbent Republican Senator Gordon Smith has a tough road ahead of him as he faces reelection in November 2008. He has drawn two energetic challengers who will try their hardest to spend the next year tying him to George W. Bush and the failed Iraq War.

Democratic activist and former DOJ Evironmental Division attorney Steve Novick has raised about $200,000. Even though he is only 4 foot 9, he calls himself a ”fighter,” noting that instead of a left hand, he has a ”left hook.” If Oregonians are hungry for change, and want a large helping of it, there could hardly be a stronger contrast with the current Senator who not only looks very distinguished, but has the political lineage to match.

The most recent addition to the race has been the Democratic speaker of the Oregon House, Jeff Merkley, who announced his bid on August 1. After almost ten years in the House, Merkley will be a candidate to be reckoned with. Already, the sitting Governor Ted Kulongoski and former Governor Barbara Roberts have signed on to Merkley’s campaign, suggesting that the Democratic primary could be over before it even begins.

In a state with a Democratic governor, that voted for Democrats for president in the last five elections, and has a Democrat in the other Senate seat, a Democratic takeover in 2008 is possible. Smith has the advantage of incumbency and massive personal finances that mean his campaign should never see monetary difficulties, but he will have to work to hold on to his seat in a year when Democrats see a chance to gain back seats. Smith has distanced himself from both Bush and the war in Iraq, but his Republican affiliation could still cost him. With Merkley’s entry, this race has become much more interesting – though Smith has the initial advantage, Merkley and Novick could both prove to be tough opponents.

Candidates

Gordon Smith (I) – Republican – current Senator
Website

Jeff Merkley – Democrat – current speaker of the Oregon House
Website