Oregon Showdown: Two Dems Battle Hard to Take On Weak GOP Incumbent

In left-leaning Oregon, a Senate seat is suddenly up for grabs. Two-term Republican Sen. Gordon Smith, who virtually voted lockstep with the Bush administration until December 2006 (when he broke from the White House on Iraq after his party lost control of Congress), now faces a stiff challenge from two local progressives, Portland-area activist Steve Novick and Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley.

A SurveyUSA poll from last November pitted each Democratic candidate individually against Smith and showed Smith defeating Novick 45-39 percent and defeating Merkley 48-39 percent. And though the state primary is four months away, there has already been enough political infighting and endorsements to underscore the fact that Oregon represents a major opportunity for Democrats to boost their congressional majority. Late last year, the Novick campaign released an action alert calling attention to the fact that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) spent close to $100,000 to promote Merkley's campaign.

Novick, who was concerned that the DSCC's unusually early endorsement had created an unfair playing field for the primary, attempted to paint Merkley as a "Washington insider" and establish himself as a netroots candidate. He called on constituents to "tell the D.C. establishment that Oregon's primary election isn't for sale." Meanwhile, Novick has been raising a substantial amount of money online, with over $300,000 from ActBlue alone as compared to Merkley's $119,000 from that site. (ActBlue is the internet fund-raising force that has raised $36 million for Democratic candidates in the past three and a half years.

Novick is currently the one of the "hottest" candidates on the site; Dennis Kucinich is first, and John Edwards is fifth.) And yet Merkley is still the frontrunner in this primary race, largely due to the DSCC's support and a slew of labor endorsements. When I questioned Novick about his mudslinging, he explained, "There's nothing wrong with accepting [the DSCC's] help, but having those ties inhibits Merkley from tackling issues like fiscal responsibility." In other words, it could be tougher for Merkley to be a credible critic of our Democratic senatorial leadership on issues like capital gains taxes when the DSCC is promoting his campaign. The larger issue, though, is that the DSCC's endorsement of Merkley effectively undermined Novick's campaign before the primary could really get under way.

Hooked on Novick

In considering his Senate run, Novick told the Willamette Weekly, "Someone needs to take the fight to Gordon Smith. And a fighter needs to have a hard left hook." Novick was referring, as he often does, to the metal prosthesis he wears; he was born without a left hand and fibula bones in his legs, resulting in his 4-foot-9-inch height. Yet Novick quickly overcame these physical disabilities, attending college at age 14, Harvard Law School at 18, and joining the Department of Justice at 24, where he spent eight and a half years successfully prosecuting polluters for violating the Clean Air and Water Acts.

Novick ultimately served as lead counsel in the DOJ's landmark Love Canal case, an early Superfund trial that resulted in a $129 million settlement paid by Occidental Chemical. Back in Oregon, he fought against plans to cut the state budget for schools and healthcare, and then went after the Oregon Lottery for overpaying video poker retailers with money that should have gone to schools. Novick compared his 20-year progressive track record with Gordon Smith's congressional tenure, saying, "And just think, Smith couldn't even vote to investigate Halliburton in Iraq."

Education, global warming, ending the Iraq occupation and universal healthcare are all priorities for Novick, who firmly believes that many of these issues can be dealt with by cutting spending and raising revenue through fairer taxes. Novick claims Gordon Smith has helped the Bush administration tack on $3 trillion to our national debt and create tax holidays for multinational corporations for overseas investments. He also feels Merkley is not talking about fiscal responsibility enough, even though Merkley told me the hemorrhaging in our national treasury must stop.

Merkley stands strong

It's surprising that Novick has tried to depict Merkley as the "D.C. establishment" candidate, since Merkley has been battling the establishment in Oregon since he became House speaker four and a half years ago. Merkley is the son of a sawmill worker and grew up in the small mill town of Myrtle Creek, Ore. Although he later attended Stanford and Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy, it is his rural, working-class background that Merkley has employed to offer solidarity with victims of the Bush economy. (Gordon Smith, by contrast, hails from a prep school past.) To that end, Merkley has fought hard as a state representative to protect public education, and create job growth and affordable healthcare.

When it comes to the environment, more pro-environment bills went into effect under Merkley's leadership in 2007 than in the years between 1991 and 2005 combined, which earned the state legislature high praise from the Oregon League of Conservation Voters (OLCV). According to Jonathan Poisner, executive director of OLCV, "The Legislature showed that with strong, responsible leadership, the state can take steps to promote a better environmental legacy for our kids." Not only does Merkley act on the environment, he also utilizes environmental legislation to foster jobs, economic growth and fiscal savings. He has proposed setting a 25 percent renewable energy standard nationwide by 2025 (similar to the one set in Oregon under his leadership), which would invest billions of dollars in clean energy sources and create jobs, while effectively closing tax loopholes for big oil companies.

Merkley also supports Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell's Reducing Demand through Electricity Grid Intelligence Act, an energy efficiency bill that would save consumers money on electricity bills. In addition to the DSCC's endorsement, Merkley received the support from a slew of unions, including AFSCME, AFT and the AFL-CIO, for the pro-worker legislative package he helped pass. Tom Chamberlain, president of Oregon's AFL-CIO, said, "Merkley is a champion for working folks and has a lifetime voting record with the AFL-CIO that's 97 percent."

The bigger picture

For the most part, Novick and Merkley share ideological views, which was further evidenced by the first debate held between them earlier this month. Both candidates want to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq immediately with calls for multilateral, multinational diplomacy to bring an end to sectarian violence. Both candidates support the Sanders-Boxer Global Warming Bill and will push for massive investment in renewable energy. Both support universal healthcare and have claimed to identify with John Edwards in the current presidential race. With so much in common and the poll numbers so close, it's no wonder Novick has been attacking Merkley this early in the primary season. Besides criticizing the DSCC's endorsement, Novick has also faulted Merkley for voting for a resolution in 2003 that supported our troops but acknowledged President Bush's courage and leadership in removing Saddam Hussein. Novick contended Merkley shouldn't have supported the resolution because it was "Republican demagoguery," reaffirming the Bush administration's rationale for war.

In his defense, Merkley said, "There was no way I would be part of repeating the mistakes of Vietnam of not supporting our troops, and [Novick] conveniently forgot about the sacrifice our troops have made." Merkley also defended his stance on the Oregon House floor, where he praised the efforts of our troops. Of course, the infighting between these two Democrats pales in comparison to the animosity they share toward Gordon Smith. After years of supporting the war and the Bush administration, Smith went before Congress in December 2006 and said our policy in Iraq was "absurd" and "may even be criminal." This political posturing garnered Smith a great deal of media attention and friends across the aisle at a time when Republicans were reeling from their losses in both the House and Senate.

According to a recent DSCC poll conducted by the Portland-based firm Grove Insight, however, Smith's new stance on the war hasn't helped his job-approval rating, which has plummeted from 46 percent in February to 33 percent in November. Assuming Novick wins the primary, he eagerly anticipates the chance to debate Smith on the war. "While I'd rather have Smith be critical of the war than not," Novick said, "when is he going to acknowledge his own failings on the war?" Novick plans to ask whether Smith read the part of Thomas E. Ricks' book, Fiasco -- the book that Smith claimed to have changed his views of the war -- that assessed that one of the greatest failures was on the part of Congress. Merkley added, "People in Oregon will realize that what Smith did was an act of political positioning rather than personal will."

At the risk of being labeled a moderate Republican and alienating his conservative constituents on the war, Smith also flip-flopped on his views of former Majority Leader Trent Lott recently. When Lott lost his Senate Republican leadership post in 2002 for pro-segregationist comments that praised Strom Thurmond, Smith applauded Lott's decision to step down. Last month, Smith reversed this position and said that the decision had been "a wrong that was righted." With so much pandering, Smith certainly seems panicked. At the end of December, Smith's campaign released an email in which he went on the defensive about the DSCC's financial endorsement of Merkley.

"As the national Democrats' top target in 2008," Smith wrote, "I know that these far-left, out-of-state liberals will pour millions more into Oregon to try and defeat me." Clearly, Smith is aware of his own vulnerability heading into next year's election. The only question now is which Democrat will give him a run for the money.


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