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Smith at the starting line

Much of the context is still lacking, but political topic A in Oregon clearly is: To what extent is Senator Gordon Smith, the only statewide elected Republican, vulnerable in 2008, when his seat is up? Not only Democrats but Republicans as well are pondering the question.

Gordon Smith
Gordon Smith

Nationally, of course, Smith is too obvious a target to miss: A Republican in an increasingly blue state, and the only Republican among the three Pacific coast states (excluding Alaska). Nothing resembling a definitive answer is possible yet, of course, because we lack so much of what will be the context for that race. What will the state and nation look like then? How will Oregonians assess the credit or blame? Will they feel as harshly toward President Bush and the Republican Congress as they do now? Will the Democrats in Washington and Salem do well or poorly? How will the presidential campaigns affect political 2008 in Oregon?

Not to mention more race-specific issues. Will Smith run again? (The presumption is that he will, but there’s no formal declaration yet, and likely won’t be for a while.) If he does, will he raise a huge amount of money, or less than that? (He apparently has about $2 million on hand now.) How does he present himself to the state now, as the Bush era winds down? How do issues impact him? What sort of a campaign does he run? And, needless to say, who might he draw as opposition?

Only on some of those latter points is even loose speculation feasible. Which, of course, isn’t slowing down the politically interested from taking a crack at it.

First step is working out Smith’s own relative vulnerability.

Gordon Smith has been on the statewide ballot in three general elections, and three primaries, starting with the 1996 special election occasioned when Republican Senator Bob Packwood resigned.

Remember the atmosphere of early 1996: The Newt Gingrich Revolution of 1994 was still alive, Republicans were very much on the march. No Democrat had won a U.S. Senate race in Oregon in 24 years. Democrat John Kitzhaber had (1994) just been elected governor, but with just 51% of the vote, and only after Republican Denny Smith had been weakened by a hotly negative primary; in the general, a candidate to Smith’s right took 5% of the vote. The Democratic representative in District 1 (Elizabeth Furse) won that year by 301 votes; in the 5th district, a Republican replaced a Democrat. Republicans decisively held both the state Senate and House.

In that context, Republican Smith of Pendleton, a statewide figure as president of the state Senate, faced Democrat Ron Wyden, U.S. representative of the central Portland congressional district – by far the most liberal in the state. Both were capable and intelligent candidates; each (in that election) was willing to, and did, go heavily negative on the other. The result was close, but in the context of the times, not what you’d think: Wyden prevailed, by about a percentage point.

Almost immediately, Smith became the first person to run twice for the U.S. Senate in one year, to fill the seat from which Republican Mark Hatfield was retiring. He first faced a primary contest (from several candidates, chiefly Lon Mabon), which he dispatched easily, winning 78%. That gave him some momentum. In the general he faced Democratic businessman Tom Bruggere, an energetic candidate who had never run for office before. The result was a race that played out almost exactly like the presidential, in which Bruggere took the plurality Bill Clinton vote (Bruggere got 46%, Clinton 47%) and Smith the Robert Dole plus Ross Perot vote (combined, they took 49%, Smith won 50%). Another close outcome.

When Smith ran for re-election in 2002, he fared better, upping his percentage to 56.2%. Again, though, remember the year: Nationally, pretty good for Republicans, and in Oregon, not bad. Republicans came close to winning the governorship with a problematic candidate (Kevin Mannix). They lost outright control of the Oregon Senate (a tie resulted), but their numbers overall for state office weren’t bad. And Smith’s opponent, Bradbury, had obstacles, of which his multiple sclerosis may have been least. He ran on a strong anti-war platform, something few Democrats dared do then, and was a sharp critic of the Bush Administration; a long string of statements that would sell well today limited his chances in 2002. He came across as stereotypically liberal in his policy positions. And in that context, Smith – amiable, smooth, likable – was easily able to win over much of the center. And, of course, Smith massively outspent Bradbury. Given all that, 56.2% looks like a modest outcome.

And you have to wonder what would have happened had Oregon Democrats gotten their fervent wish in 2002, and then-Governor Kitzhaber had opposed Smith.

Consider the change in Oregon from 2002 to now, and speculate on how well Smith would have done earlier this month, if the other basic elements of his campaign remained the same. Look, for example, at the three counties that gave Smith his largest raw vote margins: Washington, Clackamas, and Marion, between them contributing about 100,000 vote margins over Bradbury. (Smith beat Bradbury by about 110,000 votes.) Smith won Washington County by 58.8%. Could he replicate that today? Since that 2002 election, Democratic candidates for the legislature have marched across Washington County, taking over a majority of its seats; and a Washington County (and Clackamas, and Marion too) that voted against Democrat Ted Kulongoski for governor, all voted, fairly decisively, in Kulongoski’s favor in 2006, and elected new Democratic state legislators, and some Democratic courthouse people as well. Smith would have to work much harder to win those counties today; our guess if that if the election were held now, he would not do much more than break even in them. And the the relatively soft Democratic vote Bradbury pulled in Multnomah in 2002 likely wouldn’t be as easy to achieve today, either.

(And again, once again: Yes, the election will be held in 2008, not this year, and who knows what the environment will look like then?)

You could also consider the Survey USA approval ratings, which put Smith in uncomfortable territory, bouncing between 47% and 51% approval over the last year; Wyden has generally run about 6-10 points higher. (That said, Smith’s approvals are no worse than Kulognoski’s or Washington Senator Maria Cantwell’s some months back, so they should be taken with caution.)

The overall answer to the first question then is: Prospectively vulnerable, not to be mistaken for easy pickings.

Of course, that’s but one consideration. Other factors including the opposition: Smith is clearly not vulnerable to just anyone. He retains some popularity, remains a personally likable figure, and Republicans will scrap with all the energy they can manage to keep from losing the last statewide office they have. Democrats would need a strong candidate to take advantages of changing times. (Presuming, that is, the times don’t snap back to Republican-favorable in the next couple of years.)

As in 2002, the big prospect would be Kitzhaber. Out of office and unencumbered, running his Archimedes Movement, Kitzhaber remains both a major statewide figure without the controversy that goes with holding office; in 2008 he will have been out of office almost six years. (For all that, age would be no hindrance either: He turns 60 next March. ) He appears to be as popular as he ever was; when he seemed to be considering a primary run for governor a year ago, conventional wisdom gave him even odds at taking out a governor of his own party, and strong odds to win the general election if he won the nomination. If he started reasonably early and ran a solid campaign, he likely would enter the race at even odds with Smith to win it. Maybe better than that.

How would Kitzhaber run, how would he compare to Kitzhaber as Oregonians remember him (figures from the past up to and including Tom McCall have stumbled over that one), would he do the kind of campaign he needs to do? Answers to such questions become available only after he actually enters the race. If he does.

The Democratic bench is deep at this point. If Kitzhaber opts out (and pressure will no doubt be intense for an early decision, which would run counter to his style) no lack of other prospects may emerge. Representative Earl Blumenauer, Wyden’s House seat successor, has raised his visibility around the state and spent time building contacts around the country as well. If he ran – and he’s stayed coy about the prospect so far, but it has to be a consideration – he would be well positioned and formidable.

Lots of behind the scenes talking is obviously underway. No one is likely to go very public for a while. But Republicans will want to know for sure, soon, whether Smith is running. (As noted, expect for now that he will, though the transition to the minority and the probability of a tough race ahead would be discouraging factors.) If he doesn’t, the Repugblican scramble begins. Then – sometime in the months ahead – look for signals as to Kitzhaber’s intentions. A serious race to take out an incumbent senator will need to get underway by next summer; Kitzhaber will be pushed for an answer before then.

2008 Oregon Senate offers a variety of plausible outcomes. The games should begin before long.

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  1. torridjoe torridjoe November 21, 2006

    one other factor you should note is that while Republicans nationally will fight hard to keep a seat in Blue Oregon, the Democrats have already set their sights on Smith in ’08. The amount of money that could flow into this race from DC and other non-OR places is likely to be huge, very possibly record setting.

  2. Chuck Butcher Chuck Butcher November 22, 2006

    A lot is going to depend on how compliant the media remains in framing Smith as a moderate and how clean he looks ethically. There are plenty of attack points and a lot that State media has overlooked.

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