Oregon race could spell end of Schumer streak

May 17, 2008 7:28:56 PM PDT
As head of the deep-pocketed Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, New York Sen. Charles Schumer hand-picked his party's nominee to take on Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, the last Republican standing on the West Coast.

But voters may have another idea.

Days before votes are counted in the Oregon primary, Schumer's choice ? Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley ? is in a tight battle with Portland lawyer and activist Steve Novick. Polls show the race is too close to call.

If Novick pulls off the upset, it could be a rare loss for Schumer, who acquired a reputation as a recruitment kingmaker after steering Democrats back to majority control of the Senate in 2006. This year, Schumer is working to expand that majority, with some Democrats even hoping for a 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

The DSCC is working overtime to make sure Merkley ekes out a win. Schumer, who recruited Merkley after two Democrats in the state's congressional delegation declined to run, has sent fundraising appeals on Merkley's behalf, and the DSCC has spent nearly $300,000 on TV ads boosting Merkley.

All that effort has left Novick puzzled.

"Why they think Merkley can beat Gordon Smith if they have to prop him up to beat me is beyond me," Novick said.

Schumer, who typically makes himself available to reporters, declined to comment for this story.

But Matthew Miller, a spokesman for the DSCC, said the committee's efforts can be over-interpreted. While the DSCC has spent money defending Merkley, it has not attacked Novick, he said.

"The ads we are running respond to Gordon Smith's attacks" on Merkley, Miller said. "We came into this race after Smith came in."

Miller and other Democrats in Washington acknowledge that the Senate race is closer than expected, but they say that whoever wins the party's nomination will give Smith trouble in a state that is trending Democratic and appears poised to give Barack Obama a solid victory in Tuesday's presidential primary.

"We feel good about our chances in Oregon" in the general election, Miller said, in part because of the excitement generated by the Democratic presidential race.

Democrats say the Senate race is notable for the attack ads by Smith, who has spent nearly $500,000 on ads blasting Merkley on a variety on fronts, including the fact that Merkley raised money for his congressional campaign while the state legislature was in session. Merkley says he did not take any money from people doing business with the state during the legislative session.

"He's trying to pick his opponent," Miller said of Smith. "It's pretty clear he doesn't want to run against Jeff Merkley in the fall."

Smith is the only incumbent senator in the country who has "meddled in the other side's primary" this year, Miller said.

Smith also declined to comment. R.C. Hammond, a spokesman for the campaign, said Smith's ad merely responded to an earlier ad by Merkley.

"Gordon Smith has been attacked online, in press releases, in radio interviews and on TV by Democrats for well over a year. And Jeff Merkley was the first Senate candidate to attack Gordon Smith, and the senator's campaign has responded," Hammond said.

Hammond rejected the idea that Smith prefers to face Merkley over Novick, saying Smith is confident against either one. "Senator Smith is pointing out Jeff Merkley's fundraising hypocrisy and Steve Novick's love of taxes and big government programs," Hammond said.

Even if Merkley ekes out a win, it is Novick who has generated buzz in Oregon and beyond with clever TV ads, including one that shows him opening a beer bottle with his left hand ? which is a metal hook. The 4-foot-9 Novick was born with multiple physical disabilities, but has parlayed a sharp wit into a polished strategy that stresses his unique appeal.

"We think people are looking for something a little different. I'm little, and I'm different," he says.

Merkley, for his part, stresses his progressive credentials and accomplishments in the state House, where he led Democrats to reclaim the majority in 2006. He reminds voters that Novick, for all his outsider appeal, is a veteran political consultant who has worked for some of the most prominent Democrats in the state.

"While Steve has been advising campaigns and taking potshots at everybody available, I've been in the trenches fighting battles and winning time and time again," he said.

Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts said Novick appears to have a slight advantage, but added, "This race is very much up in the air." A recent poll by Hibbitts showed a whopping 43 percent of voters were undecided.

The closeness of the race should not be surprising, Hibbitts said. While Merkley is considered the establishment candidate, neither man is well-known. Both started the race with less than 10 percent name recognition in the state.

Even in recent weeks, the Senate race has received less attention than usual because so much media and voter attention is focused on the presidential primary.

Still, Hibbitts said the close Democratic contest should not give Smith much comfort in a year where Democrats appear poised to make gains in both the House and Senate.

"What you are seeing nationally is the same thing we are seeing in Oregon: a literal collapse of the Republican brand," Hibbitts said, citing last week's Democratic victory in a Mississippi House district long held by Republicans.

Whether it's Merkley or Novick, "Democrats have a real shot out here," Hibbitts said. "When you have a stampede going on, a lot of people get trampled."