Writings and observations

Al Hansen Jim Weidner

Al Hansen (speaking, right); Jim Weidner (left)

Two years ago, one of the hottest and closest (second closest in the state) legislative races in Oregon was in District 24, which takes in McMinnville and most of Yamhill County. It emerged as a close race toward the end. The district was widely considered to be close to a Republican lock the incumbent Republican had won substantially twice before, and no news was expected. Democrat Sal Peralta ran an exceptional race, though, and nearly took out Republican Donna Nelson.

The contest this time has not been looking so close. Al Hansen, a former McMinnville council member (with a long string of community pushups as well), is the Democrat this time, but his campaign has seemed not to match Peralta’s. The contest hasn’t much hit the statewide radar; Republican and Yamhill businessman Jim Weidner, who strongly won a seriously contested primary, has been presumed to hold a strong lead.

But maybe that was a write-off too soon. There has been no public polling in the race, but over the last week word began slipping out about polling by each party (state Democrats only lately apparently were convinced to throw in some money for that), and the results on both sides show the race tied – a much stronger showing for Hansen than most local observers would have expected. There seems to be little dispute about it, either: Wiedner told the McMinnville News-Register, “I’ll go with, ‘It’s a dead heat.'”

What accounts for it?

There’s the larger atmosphere hostile to Republicans, even in swing areas. There are structural factors, such as the year-round Democratic office that’s been open in McMinnville, and the downtown Obama office, both encouraging Democratic organization. In District 24, voter registration at the end of September 2004 was: Democrats 10,942, Republicans 13,370 – Republican advantage of about 2,400. Two years later (when Peralta ran): Democrats 10,825, Republicans 13,461 – little change. But at the end of last month: Democrats 12,852, Republicans 13,423 – a Republican advantage of 571: The old gap cut by more than three-fourths. And finally, there’s the nature of the candidates: Hansen has been a McMinnville civic fixture and activist for many years, with broad contacts, while Weidner is a relative newcomer with a support base more partisan and ideological – not a good cocktail for this year.

Keep watch on this race. It could flow either way.

ALSO To the southeast, but also in the Willamette Valley, keep watch on the House 18 race (generally, a large rural region east of the Salem area). We were earlier skeptical that third-time Democratic candidate (and nursery owner) Jim Gilbert of Molalla would get a lot farther than the last two times. But we’re hearing that a confluence of factors may have put him in the lead over Republican Vic Gilliam, who was appointed to the seat in December 2006. Gilliam ran for the House twice before two, but back in the 80s, probably giving Gilbert a name ID edge. And consider the changes in voter identification: A Republican edge of 3,106 two years ago shrank to 2,320 at the end of last month.

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Watching and evaluating the outcome of the Oregon Senate has been a matter of ongoing migration. It has always been a close thing – ever since, really, November of 2006, if not earlier. Republican Senator Gordon Smith‘s December 2006 reversal on Iraq, however sincere and policy-driven it may have been, stands as symbol of that.

Still, the most common consensus during most of the time since then has been that Smith probably has a small edge: Small, but still there. Sometime in the summer, the race seemed to become more unpredictable even beyond that. But somewhere in the last few weeks it seems to have hit a new stage: Still close, but with an edge to Democrat Jeff Merkley.

You could see it in analyses coming out just today. From Charles Cook (in his Tuesday email), the veteran national analyst: “Republican nominee Bob Schaffer in the open seat in Colorado and GOP incumbents John Sununu in New Hampshire and Gordon Smith in Oregon all appear to be running behind their Democratic opponents by a handful of points. With just three weeks left, it’s hard to see how they recover, barring an unforeseen event.”

And today in Congressional Quarterly: “Despite attempts to link himself with high-profile Democrats, Republican Gordon H. Smith is facing an increasingly difficult battle for votes in the highly competitive Oregon Senate race.

Due to Smith’s perceived challenges, continued Democratic growth in the state of Oregon and Smith’s failure to gain a strong lead in recent polls, CQ Politics is changing the rating of the race from Leans Republican to No Clear Favorite, our most competitive category.” But bear in mind that CQ is loathe to lean a race which includes an incumbent, toward a challenger: There’s a built-in lean toward incumbents. Calling it “no clear favorite” equates to “leaning Democratic” for most of us.

Cal it partly the atmosphere: Democrats in many places are being boosted. And maybe the negatives in campaigning: Both Smith and Merkley may be absorbing hits for it, but the effect even of that is to equate them. Precious few of the usual advantages of incumbency seem now to be doing Gordon Smith much good.

ALSO A New York Times article out today, focusing on the Oregon Senate race, is worth a read in reviewing some of this.

And this quote from Bill Kennemer, the Republican Clackamas County commissioner running for state representative: “I was going door to door the other day and someone asked, ‘Why don’t you put “Republican” on these fliers?’ I said, ‘Because I don’t want to lose.’ ”

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Mid-October Sunday – sounds like time for a slug of newspaper endorsements. And so there are, a batch of them around the region worth consideration.

bullet Salem Statesman Journal: Endorsements toward the top of the ticket are splashier but tend to matter less because people have so many other sources of information about those races. (They can matter most, say, in contests for school district or highway commission.) That said, the Oregon Senate contest still looks so close that any factor could be a decisive tipper.

The Salem paper went for Republican incumbent Gordon Smith, over Democrat Jeff Merkley, partly on a key basis Smith has been urging: “Smith, who is seeking a third term, remains the best choice. He is in tune with Oregonians’ common-sense, middle-of-the-road values. Republican Smith from rural Eastern Oregon makes a good team with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden from liberal Portland. Lots of candidates talk about bipartisanship. Smith delivers on it. He and Wyden collaborate on issues that affect everyday Oregonians: the environment, health care, children’s welfare, veterans’ affairs, immigration and more.” So we now have Eugene and Astoria for Merkley and Salem for Smith (which is where we imagine the Oregonian will go).

bullet Eugene Register-Guard: One of the most interesting races in the Northwest this year is the mayoralty of Eugene, where former Mayor Jim Torrey is trying to unseat his successor, Kitty Piercy. There are lots of layers here. In this non-partisan race, Piercy, more to the left, is a former Democratic legislator, while Torry (now registered as unaffiliated) is a former (2006) Republican candidate for the state Senate. But the more relevant layers have to do with which set of interest groups and which parts of town will dominate.

In endorsing Torrey (who we’re inclined to think will win the election), the RG said that in the May primary election, “Under conditions that should have strongly favored a Democrat, Piercy fell short of the 50 percent threshold needed for an outright victory in the primary. A lot of Democrats and independents must have crossed over to vote for Torrey. That vote was a sign of frustration with what’s happening in Eugene City Hall. The frustration is deepest in north and west Eugene, where city government is seen to be controlled by a faction of the City Council that prevails because of Mayor Piercy’s tie-breaking votes. To many, these votes appear to either serve the interests of the parts of the city represented by the majority, as with some of the votes preceding acquisition of property at the head of the Amazon channel, or to disregard the interests of the parts of the city represented by councilors in the minority, as with the vote to terminate the West Eugene Parkway. Piercy is irretrievably identified with one faction of a split council, and there’s no reason to believe a second term would be different.”

bullet Seattle Times, and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. An endorsement in three U.S. House races, all incumbents – Democrat Jay Inslee in the 1st Washington district, Democrat Rick Larsen in the 2nd, and Republican Dave Reichert in the 8th. That feels like some cover thrown in, because the key race and endorsement is Reichert’s (the other two will be incumbent runaways). Democrat Darcy Burner has developed this year one of the deepest and strongest challenger campaigns the Northwest has seen, and this is a serious contest.

Still, when the Times remarked that “Democrat Burner was often sure-footed in the CityClub debate in Bellevue, co-sponsored by The Seattle Times, but she has yet to prove she is best prepared to represent a district that is both urban and rural, complicated and demanding,” it almost sounds like a suggestion that her campaign, for the second time, will do well but come up short. Recent polling numbers have indicated as much.

The P-I’s endorsement here was a little surprising; its key point was, “For those of us who think that there should be strong reasons to kick out an incumbent trying to represent a diverse district well, Dave Reichert is the choice for re-election. We also think that preserving and encouraging the development of a rare voice of moderation within the Republican Party is important at a time of almost unremitting polarization.”

The reposte from Horse’s Ass: “what we have seen from both papers is little more than a defense of incumbency, a circular logic that argues that Reichert’s experience in Congress, however unremarkable, is the singular qualification that makes him a better choice than Darcy.”

bullet Portland Oregonian. No surprise whatever in the O’s endorsement of the four House members seeking re-election, and of Democrat Kurt Schrader for the open seat, over Republican Mike Erickson. The edit does note that Erickson’s (self-funded) spending is enough to keep some competition going in the race. On the other hand, it didn’t do him much good running against Darlene Hooley two years ago. And he has some seriously bad headlines to contend with this time.

bullet Boise Idaho Statesman. Also no kind of surprise, the Statesman‘s endorsement of Democrat Walt Minnick over Republican incumbent Bill Sali in the 1st district. Its take: “Bill Sali’s command of the issues has matured over the past two years. But Sali has not matured into the job of representing Idaho in Congress. The Republican’s political instinct is to pander to his constituency’s fringes – even when the situation demands statesmanship and problem-solving.” And, “We believe Minnick can approach the issues with a thoughtful independence.”

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Idaho Oregon Washington

The Daily Astorian endorses in the Senate race for Democrat Jeff Merkley, over Republican incumbent Gordon Smith.

Compellingly argued, with an unusual historical background – with a good grounding in recent Oregon political history. Worth a read for reasons beyond the usual.

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The Washington gubernatorial endorsements – where the papers have the same two choices as for years ago – will be interesting to watch. Such as the Tacoma News Tribune‘s, which comes out in tomorrow’s paper. The paper is going for Democratic incumbent Chris Gregoire, a reversal from 2004 when it supported Republican Dino Rossi.

First came the point that “We liked Rossi in 2004 (and still do) for several reasons. One was the fact that he would have been the state’s first Republican governor in the 20 years since John Spellman left the office. There is real value in shifting party control of a state’s administration from time to time. State agencies develop cultures that, over time, can settle into complacency, stagnation and unexamined assumptions about how to spend public money. These tendencies can perpetuate themselves without occasional shake-ups. The election of a Republican governor would have shaken state government up royally.”

But as to Gregoire: “Although we’ve had disagreements with her, we’ve been impressed by her overall performance as governor.”

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Lewiston Senate

Larry LaRocco, Rex Rammell and Jim Risch debating in Lewiston

The Republican nominee for the Senate in Idaho, Lieutenant Governor Jim Risch, looked – to judge from the expression he wore – at the Lewiston three-way debate as if he was unhappy about being there. He may have calculated that if he showed up at the debates organized by his two main opponents, he would be the main target, attacked from left and right. If so, he was right. But the Lewiston rounds also left us with a much more nuanced sense of Risch, and what he’s about.

It has put him in, strangely enough, the political middle. Or maybe, at times, outside the spectrum – not a bad place to be.

This was hammered in most strongly at one point, toward the end of the debate, when Lewiston Tribune editorialist Jim Fisher asked him if he was a far right conservative. Risch replied that “I am pro life, I’m a strong second amendment supporter – you weave all those together and … I don’t know that labels are something that works very well. On a given issue, I may have a feeling one way and on another I have a strong feeling that way … I’ve had people classify me as a far right-winger and others classify me as leaning left …”

That makes the first occasion in our recollection that Risch, given an opportunity (especially if given an invitation), failed to describe himself simply as a conservative. But then, what is conservatism nowadays? Democratic nominee Larry LaRocco described himself as a “moderate,” and independent (and formerly a Republican candidate) Rex Rammell as a “down the line conservative.” In 2008, Risch may actually be the hardest of the three to define.

Asked about the recent congressional bailout (the $700 billion effort), the one backed by the Bush Administration and Republican congressional leadership, Risch said he would have voted against it (just like Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden). LaRocco said he would have voted for it (as Idaho Republican Senator Larry Craig did). Risch said it didn’t include enough protection for taxpayers and also that it didn’t provide enough regulatory reform to keep the disaster from recurring – in all, a view at least as in line with Democratic as Republican opposition to the bill.

Asked where the financial mess came from, Rammell said that “I believe it was caused by overregulation . . . Why don’t we go back to the free market principles that made this country great?” A distinctly minority view (to put it delicately), of course, but one probably shared by some significant slice of the Idaho Republican electorate.

Risch’s take (reflecting something close to actual recent history): “It was bad lending practices: We all know where it went from there, and it spread throughout the economy.” A regulatory structure in place for decades has become outmoded, and “those [financial] institutions have grown up without the regulation they need. They need oversight. They need federal oversight.” Which sounds here centrist and pragmatic, but little of the ideology that excites so many Idaho Republican activists – Rammell seemed to be barking more directly up their tree.

More than in earlier debates, Rammell’s rigid ideology seemed to emerge almost everywhere, maybe brought out by Risch’s appearance. The trillions of dollars in federal debt? “All we have to do is follow the federal constitution and a lot of this debt will go away.” Social Security? “Government shouldn’t be in Social Security . . . It’s a busted system and we need to get out of that thing as fast as we can.”

After LaRocco said that Risch didn’t believe in human-developed global warming, Rammell said that “Larry, you’re wrong, Jim does believe in global warming.” (Rammell himself said that “I do not support this myth” that humans have anything to do with global warming. If it exists.) Risch himself said that “there is clear evidence the earth is warming,” and while there’s some disagreement about the degree humans are responsible for it, “we do need to get serious about [reducing] putting carbon into the air.”

Toward the end of the debate, when Rammell said to Risch, “I think you’re in the wrong party: You’re going to have to find another home for yourself,” his meaning wasn’t hard to discern.

But if there’s any single connecting thread through Risch’s political career more durable than conservatism, it might be pragmatism. And if Risch wins the Senate race, that could be a coming thing.

If Republican John McCain is substantially defeated for president next month – as looks increasingly likely – then Republicans and conservatives are going to have to redefine their basic, core ideas, if they’re going to retain their appeal to a country that overwhelmingly does blame bad business practices for the current crisis, that does think people have a lot to do with global warming and that does want Social Security protected (as both LaRocco and Risch said they would do). And it’s not hard to imagine instinctive pragmatists like Risch, more than the ideology-reliant Rammells, having a good deal to say about that.

NOTE The link at the top of this post goes to a UTube video of the debate, and the whole thing is worth watching. It was posted through the LaRocco campaign web site.

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We’ve not gotten any of these yet – though we might, living in a partisanly-swing region – but there are reports now about push-polling in the Oregon U.S. Senate race, on behalf of Republican Senator Gordon Smith.

The most detailed report just appeared on the Talking Points Memo blog: “A spokesman for Western Wats, a Utah-based market research firm, confirmed to TPMmuckraker that his firm was conducting calls on the Oregon Senate race, and named NMB Research as the client, would not give additional information, citing a non-disclosure agreement.” No indication at this point that the client was Smith’s campaign; could be another party (and others are highly active too).

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Gordon Smith

Gordon Smith

Jeff Merkley

Jeff Merkley

There was a point, about 36 minutes into the debate between Oregon Republican Senator Gordon Smith and Democratic challenger Jeff Merkley, when the debate threatened to become an actual debate.

They had got into a question about tax policy, and they were into sluggo mode, as Merkley warned that “Gordon Smith wants to give away the bank to the wealthiest and most powerful, and Smith countered that “You’re gonna have to prepare yourself for a bait and switch” on Merkley’s part (tlking about not rising taxes and then voting for them).

Then, as the topic morphed into the national debate and the bailout, Merkley asked – directly of Smith – “Do you understand that our children are going to have to pay” for the debt being amassed?

It was a direct comment, candidate to candidate, something the rules didn’t contemplate, but no one objected when Smith replied back – directly – “So what would you have me do, Jeff?” The alternatives, he warned, could be economically devastating.

Then – again, rules be damned – Merkley directly shot back: Smith should say no, “the next time that powerful international corporations” want tax cuts: That money should be used for health care and other needs of working people. In the meantime, “This economy has been run into the ground.”

It went on from there.

It was a surface exchange, and it didn’t occupy even two minutes of the debate, but it was riveting: Two intelligent candidates putting forth their ideas on a subject of critical importance and usefully skewering, where they could, their opponent’s take. It was high drama, and an hour’s worth of such exchanges would have been educational as well as wonderfully enlightening about which candidate had more on the ball.

For the most part, we got – and this is the structural part – something less useful, the “press conference” debate format, which envisioned no interaction between the candidates and only short, canned answers to questions.

[NOTE As of about 90 minutes post-debate, the Oregonian‘s on-line poll – self-selecting – had Smith winning the debate, 54%-40%.]

But enough hard feelings have developed in this race, so many negative TV spots and so many shots back and forth and from scattered sources, that the candidates often seemed right on the edge of busting through those rules. Both of them were tense and stiff at the debate’s opening; close to halfway through, Smith seemed to ease up and talk more colloquially, and soon after Merkley did too. Maybe the tension eventually needed some release.

The first question was about those negative ads, to which Smith said, “I’ll take mine down if you take yours down, Jeff.” Merkley had no reply (then; later, he said his campaign had no negative spots on air at present, though that still allows for third party ads). Smith had a batch of words for the ads aimed at him – “defamatory, deceitful, deceptive, dishonest . . .” Merkley basically said at another point that Smith started it.

Both fired lots of shots, but if anything it was the incumbent senator who fired more of them (his closing statement was heavy on the attack, while Merkley made only a brief swipe). Smith said that “You have a choice to believe what he says or believe what he’s done. Jeff Merkley has not missed a chance to snub rural Oregon. . . . He says one thing, but frankly, the way he’s acted in Salem, he’ll raise taxes . . . (in a reply on energy) You can twist it any way you want to, Jeff . . .” When both were asked to name three things about their opponent’s voting record that they liked, Merkley reeled off three from Smith’s; Smith only said that Merkley seemed to have a nice family.

But not to misrepresent: Merkley was on the attack too. You’d have to count the number of time he said “George Bush and Gordon Smith” (or the other way around) – did anyone have a drinking game going on that one? (“The meltdown on Wall Street is a natural consequence of Gordon Smith’s and George Bush’s deregulation . . .”) He said that “When the oil companies said jump, Gordon Smith jumped.” Merkley shot back, after Smith’s reference to a 2003 Iraq resolution in the Oregon legislature, “Gordon, is there no depth to which you will not go to misconstrue my record? . . . You’ve called me a coward, you’ve called me a hypocrite on television.” (This last, after questions about Smith’s food processing business in the Pendleton area, Merkley’s sharp jab on immigration and pollution, and Smith’s retort to that that he would happily contrast his business record with that of Merkley’s as a Portland-area landlord.)

Those Oregonians irritated about negative campaigning would have had a hard time basing on a decision on this debate. Both came across intelligently, and there were no obvious blowaway gaffes. At a guess, Merkley may have fared a little better in that, as the challenger, he stood across from the incumbent, gave as good as he got, and was clearly involved in an exchange directly across from his opponent – never the spot an incumbent would prefer to be in.

But the sharpness of the battle just reinforces, too, how close this thing is. They say debates don’t much matter in the final results, but in a contest so close, and a debate so hard fought, can you rule it out?

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Clark County in Washington – anchored by Vancouver – has for the last decade been one of the fastest-growing, and evidently prosperous, places in the Northwest. So bad off is the newspaper industry today that Portland’s Willamette Week today reports this about Vancouver’s locally-owned daily newspaper:

“Three months after news of layoffs across the river at The (Vancouver) Columbian there’s this latest blow to the paper, in which the daily is moving from its new building back to its old office, as part of a cost-cutting move. And in an even more ominous note, Publisher Scott Campbell is quoted as at least considering the prospect of the business seeking ‘temporary Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from creditors’ as one option.”

Where will we be two years from now?

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Will be interesting to see where the contribution/spending totals in the Oregon Senate race kick out after this. From an e-mail this money by the Democratic Jeff Merkley campaign:

“We raised more than $2 million in the third quarter of this year, more than any other Democratic candidate in Oregon history. Of that, over $850,000 was raised online. Furthermore, more than 21,000 people have contributed to my campaign since it started over a year ago.”

$2 million in a quarter is very impressive.

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