Senate Race Upset-orama: Political Earthquake Hits Oregon
America's government-by-television means instantly memorable image is everything. Our electoral decisions pivot less on issues and positions than on caricature -- Dukakis peering out of a tank, Quayle misspelling potato, Kerry "looking French," as Republicans claimed. Rare is the iconography that represents deeper substance.
As election day approaches, once-safe Republican senators like Elizabeth Dole (N.C.), Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Norm Coleman (Minn.) are struggling against Democrats who are using their economic conservatism to paint them as elitists. The criticism is working both because of the imminent recession and because these incumbents look the part. To paraphrase an attack on failed presidential candidate Mitt Romney, these pols don't remind voters of co-workers, but of bosses "who laid them off."
No Republican, though, says aristocrat like Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon. And no senate election could more intensely shift economic politics than his state's.
If Kerry looked like a professor at La Sorbonne, then Smith resembles a playboy at the Monte Carlo Casino. The son of an Eisenhower administration official and heir to a food processing company, Smith grew up in the ritzy D.C. suburbs and today lives on Bethesda's aptly named Country Club Road. In a profile entitled "From Profits to Politics," the state's largest newspaper described him as a guy who "unabashedly enjoys spending" his millions on Ferraris, mansions and "weekend trips to New York to window shop."
Since buying Oregon's senate seat in 1996, Smith has maintained high approval ratings by voting right wing on social and economic issues and feigning liberal on a handful of themes like hate crimes.
This is a well-trod Republican path in swing states -- a lockstep conservative record builds strength in GOP strongholds, and occasionally tolerant-sounding but legislatively meaningless rhetoric peels off votes in Democratic bastions.
This year, though, Smith is running for re-election against Democrat Jeff Merkley -- the son of a sawmill worker who, as Oregon House speaker, made his name cracking down on predatory lenders. More Paul Bunyan than Paul Allen, Merkley is running on his record as an economic populist, airing ads hammering a tuxedo-clad Smith for supporting corporate tax cuts and the recent Wall Street bailout. He aims to flip Smith's own calculations on their head, betting he can maintain Democratic margins in cities and middle-class suburbs and cut into Republican support in rural and working-class areas. It's a smart gamble.
Political analysts have long berated populism -- i.e., pushing financial regulation, progressive taxation and trade reforms -- as blue-collar pandering only effective in the industrial Northeast and Midwest. In the Northwest, the conventional wisdom says that while populism may appeal to Oregon's 70,000 manufacturing and timber workers who lost jobs to foreign competition, it alienates the latte-swilling office parkers who comprise the state's white-collar "new economy."
"When I see his ads in front of a mill that was closed," said Smith in attacking Merkley's criticism of free trade, "I wonder what people at Nike think, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Columbia Sportswear, whose jobs are directly dependent on trade."
Smith hopes Merkley's pocket-book pitches to historically conservative areas like timber-producing Douglas County will alienate high-tech workers in suburbs like Washington County (often called "Silicon Forest"). But with Merkley surging in polls, the opposite may be happening.
The Great American Class War ravaging the industrial sector is now pillaging the information sector, too. As Intel boasts of outsourcing, HP lays off thousands and Wall Street eviscerates 401(k) plans, a new blue-collar/white-collar solidarity is emerging. That means today, as during the Great Depression, progressive economic arguments increasingly work across cultural, geographic and employment divides, tectonically realigning politics and -- potentially -- policy.
Should Merkley defeat Oregon's tycoon senator in the heart of the "new economy," the tremors of that realignment will become a political earthquake.