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Merkley-Novick, bearing down

Jeff Merkley

Jeff Merkley

Steve Novick

Steve Novick

About six months ago, when Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley entered the race for the U.S. Senate, his prospects as an opponent to Republican Senator Gordon Smith were uncertain, which they still are. But he did seem to be the very likely – maybe just short of prohibitive – Democratic nominee. He was one of the top Democratic leaders in the state, a solid campaigner, aligned on issues with most of the state’s Democrats, recruited by national Democrats and with the support of most of the state’s Democratic establishment. No one else running or even thinking about it at that point had ever even been elected to any office.

Today – well, who knows? Last week, when he and his chief Democratic rival, Steve Novick (who is a first-time candidate), debated at the Portland City Club, Novick said in his opening statement that while he’s been accustomed to and even comfortable with his role as an underdog, he’s having a hard time defending that posture now. (Barack Obama said something similar about the time he became a front-runner.) And nobody took particular issue with Novick’s characterization. One veteran Oregon politics watcher has told us he thinks Novick will win.

Right now, we’d characterize this race as too close to call. A whole lot will depend on these candidates’ end games.

And that’s more by way of sense and feel than hard evidence, of which there isn’t a lot.

The campaigns certainly may have internal polling unshared with the rest of us, but what’s out there publicly doesn’t seem very conclusive; we can’t recall seeing any polling matching Merkley and Novick head to head. Mostly what we’ve seen are separate matchups against Smith. Last October SurveyUSA found Smith-Merkley was 48%-39%, and Smith-Novick was 45%-39%. In February, Rasmussen’s matchups had Smith-Merkley at 48%-30% and Smith-Novick at 48%-35%. (Not exactly a lot of gain there for the Democrats overall.) On the basis of that, you could say that Novick’s numbers were a little better than Merkley’s, but any fair-minded statistician would tell you that’d be pushing the point too far. The most you could realistically say is that in those polls the two of them performed comparably.

What we’re sensing more is that the two candidates have leveraged their differing assets to more or less comparable effect.

That’s been more impressive overall on the Novick side, since he’s had fewer traditional assets – less money, less of the Democratic organization and establishment, no electoral track record (or nice title before his name), and so on. But he’s made the most of what he has, and is. Few entrepreneurs would have made such creative (or daring) use of his unusual physical conditions, generating frequent national attention even on Fox News, playing it up in ads (at least one of which was truly inspired), even getting a beer named for him (“Left Hook Lager” – though eventually someone may raise a question about the sales operation). Unknown outside the political arena a year ago, Novick probably is fairly well known around Oregon now – probably better known that Merkley. Like a catchy hit record, he’s given himself a hook, so to speak. (You could say that Merkley doesn’t have one, in that the average Oregonian image of him probably is fuzzier.) But to what extent does that familiarity and even appeal lead to votes? That’s harder to know. But the endorsements he has gotten (more than we’d have expected a few months ago), including one from one of the most popular of Oregon Democrats – former Governor John Kitzhaber – may be of some help there.

He’s benefited from some Merkley campaign stumbles, too, such as the last report of the polling question (for Merkley) which suggested Novick “made a political career out of developing negative attacks, poll-driven campaigns and advising candidates what to say to get elected.” Merkley’s work as speaker during the February session initially seemed like a political plus; it probably turned into a net minus, even if the session was better than some critics argued, and that’s apart from the month-long hole it blew in all-out fundraising (and the bad press for the fundraising he did do).

There’s another indicator: What also seems notable is that both candidates are taking substantial shots at each other. If either had a “we’re positioned to win” comfort level in this race, you’d see one side avoiding or coolly deflecting the shots – but that’s not what’s happening – the mutually exchanged shot quotient seems to be rising, not falling.

At first that looked like a Novick plus, but more recently, at debates at Eugene and last week at Portland, Merkley seemed to be getting better at it. This can be tricky stuff in a race where the candidates agree on policy a lot more than they disagree, but Merkley threaded the needle well in a couple of places Friday. One was his query about Novick’s sharp tongue (Hillary Clinton as a “traitress,” Barack Obama as a “fraud”, albeit both in limited contexts) and whether he could function well in the clubby Senate. Novick’s assurances that he could seemed to run counter to his tough-guy campaigner approach: He could be alternately pouring on the Tabasco, and trying to scrape it off.

Oddly, Merkley scored even better with his seemingly peculiar question about Novick’s fierce critique of the singer Bono, asking why Smith would be a better senator than Bono. Novick didn’t hold back – he got into a full-throated rant against the singer, and (in true Novick style) unstinting on hyberbole, calling him the bigger hypocrite on earth. Merkley played the comeback neatly, with a big, incredulous smile: “The most hypocritical human on the face of the earth?” That drew some laughter from the crowd. The point here, of course, isn’t Bono; it is that alongside the standard issue positions, Novick is an idiosyncratic guy with some very particular ideas and points of view. It makes him a wonderful conversationalist (and shows up how his mind works), but idiosyncrasy isn’t always an asset in politics. And in his rebuttal question, Merkley seemed to seize on how that quality can be used to his advantage.

Merkley is becoming a stronger speaker and debater; Novick has no doubt toughened him. And Merkley retains many assets of his own. His organized network probably is stronger. We don’t have current totals, but his money picture doubtless is considerably better than Novick’s, and the use of it – in TV and other ads and promotions – is just about to come into play. If Novick in fact has been better known in the last couple of months than Merkley, that’s likely to be reversed in the month ahead. And whatever the numbers may say, Novick seems like a more quixotic shot against the polished Gordon Smith (however brilliant his campaigning shots against him may be), as compared to the more established state House speaker, and that could weigh with Democratic voters too.

Add up the columns, and this race falls into a gray area, up for grabs.

After which, as the Oregonian‘s David Sarasohn concluded in his column today: “But whoever wins the May 20 primary will start the next day essentially broke, while Smith will face the morning with at least $8 million.”

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