For the first time since 1954, Pacific Northwest races could be critical in how the U.S. Senate is organized in January. Democrats have an assured majority — they didn't in 1954 — but they will need upsets in Alaska and Oregon to reach 60 seats, the number needed to halt Republican filibusters.
The Alaska seat turns on the fate — in court and on the ballot — of Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican who has been facing a protracted and bitter courtroom battle to defend himself against ethics charges. A jury is deliberating as I write this. That has cost him campaign time, and Democrat Mark Begich, the mayor of Anchorage, is even in the polls against an incumbent who normally wins easily.
Alaska wasn't a state when Oregon, in 1954, provided the two votes to turn the U.S. Senate from Republican control to Democratic, vaulting Lyndon B. Johnson into the majority leadership on an eventual road to the White House. Democrat Richard L. Neuberger upset veteran Sen. Guy Cordon in that Oregon race, and when Sen. Wayne L. Morse subsequently switched his standing from independent to Democrat, the Senate turned.
This year, Democrat Jeff Merkley, speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives, plays the role of Neuberger, challenging two-term Sen. Gordon Smith, a moderate Republican who is desperately trying to shed party ties and cozy up to Democrats in the Senate. "Bush and the Republican brand are so damaged in this state that he is hurting Smith badly," says veteran pollster Tim Hibbitts, who nevertheless adds that the race is too close to call.
Smith lacks the legacy standing of Stevens in a state that is heavily invested in Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and is registering Democrats at a rapid pace. Additionally, the presence of a Constitution Party candidate could be a spoiler likely to take votes from Smith. The third-party candidate, Dave Brownlow, is a disaffected Republican who turned to the Constitution Party and is running a libertarian and right-to-life campaign.
Brownlow polled 6 percent in a mid-October Daily Kos poll, which Merkley led by 47-41. A SurveyUSA poll (Merkley 46, Smith 41) saw Brownlow picking up 9 percent of conservative or right-to-life voters, with strength in rural Eastern Oregon, Smith's home base. But a Rasmussen Reports poll, conducted at the same time, shows a dead heat at 47-47.
"With a Constitutional party candidate in the mix, we could have a Roberts/Frohnmayer-like result," says political scientist and blogger Russ Dondero. In 1990, an independent conservative tipped the scales for Barbara Roberts (a Democrat) over David Frohnmayer (Republican) in a tight governor's race. Third-party candidates normally fade as Election Day approaches, but Oregonians are already mailing ballots, and even a percent or two could decide the race.
Smith took the place of Mark O. Hatfield, Oregon's most successful politician and epitome of the state's traditional support for liberal-to-moderate Republicans. Hatfield retired in 1996, and Smith immediately worked to take on the Hatfield brand, crossing party lines at times and forging a working alliance with Oregon's other senator, Democrat Ron Wyden. That worked in 2002, when Smith won easily.
In 2008, although his cozying up to Democrats has attracted national media attention, it may soften his Republican support.
In an informal survey of Oregon friends and associates, both Democrat and Republican, all agreed on two things: Attack advertising is the nastiest they have seen, with the worst coming from the national senatorial committees; and the race is too close to call.
This time, Wyden is campaigning for Merkley, and the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee is aggressively targeting Smith. "Those [TV ads] from Sen. Schumer and his committee, who have only distant familiarity with Oregon, have been far uglier than the few ads Merkeley has been able to afford. Smith's ads have been smoother, slicker, but mean," a retired teacher from Portland commented to me. "Schumer really wants that seat," observed a former journalist and political activist from Salem.
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