OR: Primary preview/the majors

T-minus a week to two (there’s some flexiblity) for the mailing, and then the marking, of primary election ballots in Oregon. (Deadline, and counting day, is May 20.) Time to take stock. Herewith, a short overview of the main races on the ballot, in this post those for major office, and upcoming a rundown of the most notable legislative contests. They’re listed more or less in order of significance (as we work it out) . . .

Barack Obama

Barack Obama

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

bullet President/Democratic. Has to go first – who ever would have figured three months ago that the Oregon contest might have had real national significance? And yet it could, ironically because it is so late in the season. Only one Democratic primary election date, June 3, will follow the concurrent Oregon/Kentucky contests, and both of those small states are probably gimmes for Illinois Senator Barack Obama, and Kentucky is widely considered a slam for New York Senator Hillary Clinton. Oregon is as close as it gets to a genuine end-game contest between the two. (Although be it noted: We’re in that large crowd of analysts who’ve concluded – in our case ever since the Wisconsin primary – that the only way Clint wins the nomination is through some wildly unforeseen earth-shaking event; the odds against her at this point are overwhelming.)

Not that the point should be pressed too far: We’d bet on Obama winning Oregon, albeit we’re less sure of the margins. Both campaigns are digging in deep and hard, Bill Clinton is already scheduled for a return visit, and Oregon could become scorched political country over the next month. Right now, the May 6 Indiana and North Carolina primaries necessarily get top billing and attention, but after that (assuming the race is still on) Oregon logically rises to the top of the field. Question: What impact might this have on in-state races?

Jeff Merkley

Jeff Merkley

Steve Novick

Steve Novick

bullet Senate/Democratic. We’d figured into the first weeks of this year House Speaker Jeff Merkley would, if not bag the race, then at least be clear frontrunner. As matters stand, this race is very hard to call. Merkley has caught hardly any breaks in the last three months, and the mistakes he has made (not an exceptional number, but they’re there) seem to have been amplified. Attorney Steve Novick has accumulated a pile of favorable press and a clear identity. Merkley is ahead in money and endorsements, but not by so much as to create an overwhelming problem for Novick. And we have to say that in travel around the state, we’ve seen more evidence of on-ground Novick activity and support (yard signs, people handing out literature and so on) than for Merkley. Pressed, we might give Novick an edge as things are playing out right now.

Not without caveats. Both candidates (and yes, there are four others too, but the winner will be one of these two) are highly substantive and knowledgeable, but much of Novick’s visibility has come by way of gimmickry: TV spots highlighting how “different” he is without highlighting
why that matters, or highlighting any issues of public import, for that matter. (Yes, he addresses them, in his usual fluent way, but at the margins, almost in the background.) Still, his latest ad, in which Novick visibly “pulls the plug” on a standard-issue spot-within-a-spot, could have the secondary effect of undercutting the just-starting Merkley TV campaign.

A hard campaign to call, much tougher than it once seemed to be (a testament among other things to just how skilled a political operative Novick is). Could be (given indicators of still-high undecideds) that it’s yet to be won, by one or the other.

Mike Erickson

Mike Erickson

Kevin Mannix

Kevin Mannix

bullet House 5/Republican. Oh, this is looking interesting. At the moment they both announced, a conventional wisdom set in about Mike Erickson (the 2006 Republican nominee here) and former legislator and gubernatorial candidate Kevin Mannix, the competitors for the Republican nomination. It held that Mannix, who quickly wrapped up much of the establishment party support (not just support, really – enthusiasm), has regional support locally from his days in the legislature, has pulled a long list of Republican-based endorsements so far and has deep affection from social conservatives in the party, should run the table. And that’s that.

But as in the Democratic Senate race, we have to take some pause. Mannix may win – we’re not predicting to the contrary, yet at least. But this deal may not be wrapped. Erickson has been fast out of the chute with his first TV spots, and (a light indicator) has more ground evidence of activity than Mannix so far. And time is running short. And the last big rounds of headlines people in the area have been exposed to about Mannix have mostly been less than positive (general election losses, financial issues, Loren Parks and so on). Mannix’ assets here are real and substantial, and we don’t discount them (even if they do remind us just a bit of the kind of assets Hillary Clinton had going for her last year). But in this kind of a lightning round, if Erickson continues to pour money into media, who knows for sure what may happen? An Erickson win would be an upset, but upsets do happen (and we try to be alert for them). We’ll withhold our bets for now.

Kurt Schrader

Kurt Schrader

Steve Marks

Steve Marks

bullet House 5/Democratic. Our comfort level is a little higher in pegging this one. State Senator Kurt Schrader of Canby is (in the Mannix role) the guy with the long-standing and deep ties, while Steve Marks, though a former chief of staff for then-Governor John Kitzhaber, is in spite of his background necessarily playing a more outsider role (a bit more like Erickson). The dynamic differs here, though, for several reasons. Schrader is a very experienced candidate with long-standing personal ties around Clackamas County and around Oregon Democratic politics; Marks is doubtless connected, but on a lower level. Schrader starts as much better known, and he got started earlier. You can sense their relative positions from observing that it’s Marks seeking a series of primary debates with Schrader, not the other way around.

Probably neither is wildly well known district-wide right now (both Republicans surely have better ID at this point). But the advantage seems to go to Schrader.

Kate Brown

Kate Brown

Rick Metsger

Rick Metsger

Vicki Walker

Vicki Walker

bullet Secretary of State/Democratic. Three solid candidates (we can say, having talked to all three) – state Senators Kate Brown of Portland, Vicki Walker of Eugene and Rick Metsger of Welches. Varied bases of support. Varied types of appeal. You can make an interesting and realistic case, we’d say, for any of the three surviving the primary. A win by any of them would not come as a shock. (There is a fourth candidate, Paul Damian Wells; he will surely finish a distant fourth.)

After sifting through what seems to be relevant, our best guess is that the win will go to Brown. It’s not just her money (she’s outraised the others, substantially) or endorsements, but more what that signifies: She’s been at the Statehouse since 1990 and a party leader most of that time, meaning that she can call in a lot of links and connections. She was the first of the three into the race, and from all accounts has run at least as hard as the other two. Her campaign discourse looks at the office more broadly and yet feels more honed and specific; our sense is that she’s better at projecting her message.

There again, weeks remain. We shall see.

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