One of the political assets attributed the Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley, the just-in candidate for U.S. Senate, has to do with his ascension to the office he has now - in other words, Democratic control of the Oregon House. When he became House minority - Democratic - leader in September 2003, there were 25 Democrats in the 60-seat chamber. Now, there are 31, just enough to take control. As leader of the House Democrats, Merkley can reasonably take some credit for that. The question arises: How much credit?
It's a subject that may be revisited and recalibrated over the next year - just how strong are those political skills? - as Merkley rolls the dice on a big move. He looks ahead, as this begins, toward favorable odds toward winning the nomination (we'd not call it a done deal, as some may) and some great unknowns in the general. He has substantial assets to call upon, and incumbent Republican Gordon Smith has serious liabilities. But the path is long and twisting.
We can say with greater confidence that the Senate contest is taking on a definable shape, after seeming for months something like an amorphous blob. It starts to look, on the Democratic side, like a probable two-man contest probably - from what we've seen of both Merkley and already-in candidate Steve Novick - energetic but not bloody. (The Novick-offered and Merkley-accepted proffer of a series of debates suggests as much.) These two could emerge from a primary unsullied by each other, and (one of them) stronger in the general for the effort.
(A comment on Blue Oregon reflects an inquiry we've heard elsewhere already: "Would it be fair at this point to identify Merkley with the "centrist" branch of the Dems, and to identify Novick with the 'liberal' branch of the Dems?" Our basic take: Pending fuller descriptions of viewpoints once of the two of them get started, we think such distinctions would be splitting hairs, and that the two overall probably aren't very far apart.)
On the Republican side, we continue to watch for a primary challenge to Smith: We think it more likely than not to emerge at some point.
That sounds like a lethal prescription for Smith, but it may not be. The limits of his residual strength in Oregon may be uncharted. And a number of independent Oregonians may be hit by a stark element of the choice in this Senate race - the election of a Democrat to this seat will eliminate Republicans completely from the ranks of statewide office holders and move the state hard toward one-party dominance; and some significant number of independents may wind up blanching at that.
Or not. A lot will depend on attitude in 2008, and we aren't there yet. And if this sounds like a waffly post, that's because we figure waffly predictions are the right kind, in this case, for now.
A MERKLEY CATCH We'll not waffle on this, however: Merkley's campaign picked up strong help today for its web activities in bringing aboard Carla of Loaded Orygun, one of the strongest political blogs in the Northwest. Call it an early indication that somebody over there knows what they're doing.