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Weighing Smith/Westlund ’08

Premature the speculation certainly is, premature in every way. Still, the idea intrigues too much to let go, and this closer from commentator Ben Sadler’s latest column begs for a followon:

Gordon Smith
Gordon Smith
Ben Westlund
Ben Westlund

“Given the voters’ rebuke of the Republican Party and Smith’s orthodox partisan voting record, Smith can no longer hide in Mark Hatfield’s maverick cloak. Smith is no maverick. Ben Westlund is. And Oregonians love their mavericks.”

They do, and you saw it in the initially enthusiastic reaction of a lot of Oregonians when Westlund, a state senator who had just switched his affiliation from Republican to independent, announced for governor. Westlund would bring some important assets to such a race, along with some big questions.

Before going any further, some caveats we’ve visited here before. We don’t even know, for example, that Smith is running again. The single best candidate against Smith would probably be former Governor John Kitzhaber, but his plans if any are so far an enigma and likely to stay so for a while. Next in line, we think, would be U.S. Representatives Earl Blumenauer and Peter de Fazio – either would likely get the nomination easily absent Kitzhaber and each other; but here too, intentions are obscure, the more so because these legislators are just moving into a majority. After that, there’s likely no one whose entry would clear the field.

Except maybe.

Westlund, like the others (and very reasonably) has personally had nothing to say about a race for the Senate, or anything else, in 2008, which is when his Senate seat is up. But let’s assume for purposes of this post that he would be interested in a U.S. Senate run, and that none of the front-bench Democrats choose to file. What practical and political considerations should Oregon political junkies 9and Westlund for that matter) then bear in mind? Let’s consider a few.

bullet Looks like up or out time for Westlund. There’s nothing to stop Westlund from running for another term in the Oregon Senate from his Bend-area district. There’s also nothing to stop local Republicans from nominating – as they of course will – a candidate against him, and Westlund’s ability to hold his seat as an independent are unclear at best. If he tried he might lose; but even if he won, he would be battered, and not nearly the figure of charisma he has been this year. 2008 would be Westlund’s time, more likely, either to opt out completely or try for a higher office.

bullet Westlund would have to become a Democrat. That would seem his only route at this point to major partisan office in Oregon. (We’ll leave aside for the moment the idea of a run for something like state treasurer.) He couldn’t do it as an independent; his run for governor was a noble try but was clearly going to fall short. In a Senate race, big money will be needed, and that goes to Republicans and Democrats. Smith will be well funded; his opponent will either need to self-fund (not realistic for Westlund) or be able to tap party networks. And Oregon law provides that major parties can nominate only members of their own party, and only members who have been members for six months before the filing deadline. Westlund would have to make the switch by early next fall.

In repudiating his old party, Westlund prompted the equal and opposite effect from his former team; and after providing an assist to Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski with his endorsement this fall, Westlund is highly unlikely to be welcomed back into the Republican fold.

Which leaves open the question of whether Oregon Democrats would settle for this till-recently Republican as their nominee for a major office – especially for the very top of the state ticket, the U.S. Senate. That’s unclear as yet, but our impression is that in Westlund’s case, there’s a good chance they would. They too have not forgotten the Kulongoski endorsement, and neither has the governor. If Kulongoski, together with whatever other party leaders he could bring in, gave Westlund a “unity” launch, he could be on his way. The caveat is that Westlund couldn’t do the launch as a lone wolf; he would need solid alliances built in-party.

As Sadler notes, there is precedent for this, and in the U.S. Senate too. Wayne Morse, first elected to the Senate in 1944, split from his party in the next decade and became an independent for a while, then – before the 1956 election – joined the Democratic Party. Worked smoothly in his case.

bullet On the stump, Westlund would look and sound like a plausable candidate for the Senate. Westlund is a big physical presence, and his voice carries. Watch him in action for a few minutes, and he’s instantly plausible as a major office holder. He carries a dollop of that Kitzhaber-type charisma. He has a sense of humor (which he might have to watch carefully). He has a compelling life story and life experience that is different from but can match neatly against Smith’s.

Early in the gubernatorial campaign this year, Westlund appeared at a few forums other several other candidates for the office, including the major party primary winners. We’ve heard that at those appearances, he blew everyone else away. We’re not suggesting he would necessarily blow Smith off the stage. But he clearly would hold his own.

bullet Strategically, Westlund could be well positioned to take on Smith. And we’re not even getting into the idea that Westlund might be able to slice into the eastern Oregon conservative vote a bit. Rather, Sadler’s analysis suggests why:

An operating majority of the voters in this year’s election, and to a slightly smaller degree in 2004, made clear their disgust for Republican governance on the other coast – the voters were making a broad statement, not especially personal and not especially pro-Democratic. Smith’s appeal for the decade he’s been in Congress has been his reputation as a moderate Republican. As Democrats are quick to point out, he is no Lincoln Chafee but rather, in the main, a centrist and loyal member of the Republican Senate caucus. (If Smith really were a maverick he would draw primary opposition from the right, which he didn’t in 2002 and likely won’t next year.) To the extent he is perceived as a moderate rather than a mainstream conservative Republican, his standing is enhanced.

The single Oregon politician who could most effective blow a hole in that posture would be Westlund. He could proclaim that he really was what Smith likes to position himself as, but that you can’t do that anymore – in practice, as opposed to in image – and still stay in the Republican Party. “You want a maverick?” Westlund could declare. “I’m the real thing.” He could appeal powerfully to that great mass of independent Oregonians.

We’ve been sitting here a while just now trying to craft a counter strategy Smith could use against Westlund in case of such a challenge. We’re not coming up with much, other than pretzel logic and the feeling that Westlund would be an awful nightmare for Smith, worse in some ways than Kitzhaber.

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