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Splits, With Consequences

Gordon Smith
Gordon Smith

When in December Senator Gordon Smith spoke on the floor of the Senate to break, for the first time, with the Bush Administration on Iraq, and position himself mostly with Democrats, that event was widely viewed as having significant political consequences for Oregon politics in 2008. And it may. It was widely seen as a reflection of Smith’s possible difficulties as he looks toward a re-election campaign in an increasingly blue Oregon.

But his decision Wednesday to support a locally significant but far less known Democratic position could have even larger political effects.

That position is in support of the proposal by Oregon’s Democratic Governor, Ted Kulongoski, to raise cigarette taxes by 84.5 cents per pack, and use the money to underwrite health care for uninsured children. On Wednesday, he appeared together with Kulongoski at the Statehouse to endorse the idea.

Let us count some of the many ways this simple endorsement shook Oregon politics.

bullet It greatly improves the odds that Kulongoski’s proposal ultimately will succeed. News stories about the proposal in the week or two preceding the announcement centered on the idea that it may fail in the House. Because it involves a tax increase, at least five Republicans would have to cross over to join unanimous Democrats to pass it there – a tough goal. Talk had centered around simply referring the issue to the ballot. Smith’s announcement gives partisan cover to any Republicans interested in supporting it, and that could mean enough shift to allow to for passage.

Even if it doesn’t, his announcement will provide more sweeping support and cover – and the lack of major office holders in opposition – if it goes to the statewide ballot. His announcement changed the dynamic. And remember, this is no small issue.

bullet It offered a fresh infusion of political power to Kulongoski. The governor started his second term with what felt like a burst of energy, but you can think of this in terms of a car – every so often it needs a fill-up at the station to keep chugging ahead. Kulongoski was not out of gas, but he may have been approaching the quarter-filled mark this month as the Healthy Kids plan, which as much as anything is central to his agenda this year, seemed to run into trouble. Now, standing with Smith, he re-emerges as a bipartisan leader of an important program. He’s re-filled up, with a tiger in the tank.

bullet It muddles Smith’s philosophical stance as a Republican. What does Smith – and do the Republicans – stand for? A little harder to say now, at least much harder to put on a bumper sticker, since Smith has emerged in favor of a Democratic tax increase. And other Republicans, who may be opposed (many are), could be stuck pulling their punches against the Democrats on taxes; will they now dare blast Democrats on that front, realizing their one statewide office holder could be tarred with the same?

If the idea was to present himself as a Republican acceptable to Democrats – a maverick stance – he could get some traction there. But the advantage may be severely limited. To avoid splitting too far with very many other Republicans, he may have to re-emphasize their areas of agreement, a move back to the right that could undo what he’s just done.

bullet It may energize a primary challenge to Smith from the right. Talk about a “more conservative” challenger to Smith has been floated for a while now; with what results are unclear. Smith’s shifting stance on Iraq, as notable as it was, may not produce such a challenge, though, the way this announcement does. This time, after all, Smith has come out for a Democratic tax increase. That’s cutting deep into the philosophical bone. Few stances more quickly generate Republican primaries than an incumbent who has backed a Democratic tax plan.

bullet Primary aside, it is splitting Republicans. Consider this from Republican blogger Ted Piccolo: “Some insiders are now saying that this could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. This is the first major vote that the Republicans were going to be taking the Democrats on and means so much to maintaining caucus control. Smith did not tell any caucus members about his betrayal until Tuesday night (last night) the night before his press conference.”

And, from a followup post, this: “I have been on the phone with various party operatives over the past few hours and they are stunned, stunned at the turn of events over the past 24 hours. Some are afraid that the elected Republicans still don’t get the losses the public handed out last November and fear a trek deeper into the wilderness.”

bullet It stands to solidify Democratic control of the House and provide its first big win there. Piccolo again: “Let me give kudos to Speaker [Jeff] Merkley. The guy knows how to win. I only wish that our leadership would have figured this out about ten years ago. Republicans can learn something from the Speaker. Oh and I am sure the Smith people enjoy the praise they are receiving from the Democrats.” The Republican votes needed for passage remain uncertain, they’re nearer than they were.

The Democrats, as you might imagine, sound giddy.

bullet Smith may be stuck with state issues now. Traditionally, candidates for the U.S. Senate, incumbents included, can avoid wading into contentious state government issues if they choose, saying their race is about federal matters. As Kari Chisholm points out in Blue Oregon, “That excuse is no longer available to you. You’ve put your marker down on Healthy Kids – and thank you, by the way – but you’re now open for business. Reporters, bloggers, legislators, everyone gets to ask now: What’s your position on House Bill X? Senate Bill Y? Ballot Measure Z?”

Quite a bit of prospective impact for a simple little endorsement.

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  1. chocobot18 chocobot18 February 22, 2007

    They should just put it on the ballot. Washington did that a few years ago and it passed overwelmingly, giving Washington, at the time, the state with the most expensive cigarettes in the nation.

  2. Chuck Butcher Chuck Butcher February 24, 2007

    Why isn’t this typical Republican behavior? It’s an attempt to tax those who can’t defend against it for purposes totally unrelated to the taxed item. Finally, it drops the load on those on the lower end of the economic ladder. The only thing I find astonishing in the whole affair is Democrats doing it, but then, I looked at the nanny aspect of it and understood.

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