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.
Merkley's best hope is that Obama enthusiasm will lift his campaign. It may not be happening. Two Portland friends remarked after a weekend canvassing for Democrats: "Passion for Obama has not spilled over to float Merkley's boat," and, "Of all the Obama voters I contacted, only one was sure they were voting for Merkley."
If Smith loses, Oregon for the first time since 1860 will not have a Republican in statewide elected office. Although three other statewide offices are on the ballot, as well, Democrats are either unopposed or have insurmountable leads. Only one of the five members of Congress, Greg Walden of Eastern Oregon, is a Republican.
This is an amazing change from the last century, when Republicans controlled the state until the 1980s. Democrats began to compete in the 1950s, primarily at the congressional level, and that is the context for the 1954 senatorial campaign that changed control of the U.S. Senate.
Oregon's maverick senator, Wayne Morse, had been elected as a Republican in 1944 and 1950, but he split with the party during the 1952 election and declared himself an independent. He promised, however, to vote with Republicans to organize the Senate in 1953, since he had been elected as a Republican. Morse's vote made a 48-48 tie (Hawaii and Alaska didn't join the Union until 1959) and allowed Vice President Richard Nixon to break the tie in favor of Republicans.
In 1954, Morse told Democratic leaders in Oregon that his intent was to change his registration to Democrat after the 1954 election, in which he campaigned vigorously for the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, Richard Neuberger. Neuberger upset veteran Republican Sen. Guy Cordon by only 2,462 votes and became the 48th Democratic senator. Once again, if Morse voted with the 47 Republicans, the 48-48 tie would go to the GOP on Nixon's vote. Despite his earlier commitment to Democrats that he would switch parties, Morse delayed filing as a Democrat until January 1955, when he tipped the scales to make Sen. Johnson of Texas the Senate majority leader.
The combination of Neuberger's upset win and Morse's party switch had enormous consequences for the future, as Johnson went on to become president. For Morse, the reward for backing LBJ was a seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, from which, a decade later, he savaged Johnson's conduct of the Vietnam War.
This year's contest doesn't have control of the Senate at stake, but the senatorial campaign committees of both parties are fiercely contesting Oregon, where Merkley could play the role of Neuberger and give Democrats the 60th vote to break filibusters. It could be another historic election.