In July, when Jeff Merkley entered the race for US Senate, Steve Novick—who'd been in the race since April—invited Merkley to travel the state with him, arm in arm, making joint appearances to talk about the need to replace Republican Senator Gordon Smith.
It was a noble gesture, a signal that the Democratic primary campaign for the seat wouldn't get mired in the liberal infighting typical to such races. It was also a practical move—both Merkley and Novick share many of the same friends and colleagues in the insular world of Democratic Oregon politics, though both lack the statewide name recognition among regular voters that Smith, as a sitting senator, already enjoys. Combining forces, so to speak, would give both candidates a chance to double their exposure.
Ahhh, but what a difference a month makes. The trouble began in early August, when Merkley's vote on a symbolic pro-Iraq War resolution surfaced in the media. The vote on House Resolution 2 (HR2) was in March of 2003, days after the US invaded Iraq, on a resolution that declared that Saddam Hussein was a WMD-bearing threat, acknowledged the "courage" of George W. Bush in going to war to depose him, and praised the "courage, dedication, professionalism, and sacrifices" of the members of the armed forces. A small handful of Democratic state legislators voted no; Merkley voted yes, but gave a speech on the floor of the House stating his opposition to the war and explaining that he was only voting yes to show his support for the troops.
The issue of Merkley's Iraq War vote appears to have been raised by the Oregon Republican party, but Novick made it clear that he wouldn't back off from revisiting the argument. In a post on BlueOregon.com (responding to claims that he was "attacking" Merkley), Novick called HR2 "Republican demagogic garbage."
"In voting for the resolution... Jeff Merkley missed a chance to show that he is the kind of guy who will denounce Republican demagoguery at every turn," Novick wrote. "That doesn't make him a bad guy. It doesn't change the fact that he's a heck of a lot better than Gordon Smith. But it does distinguish him from me."
The fight has dragged in supporters of both candidates, many of whom have a long history of working together in state politics. The campaign has even split the co-editors of BlueOregon.com. (Co-founder Kari Chisholm was even "Rogued" by Willamette Week for allegedly using the site to bash Novick for helping the Republicans "swiftboat" Merkley.)
So far, though, Merkley hasn't done much to engage Novick on the Iraq vote, instead stating firmly that he's against the war, calling for American forces to leave the country, and lambasting Smith's "Election night flip flop" on the war (criticizing the war only after a majority of Americans also began opposing it).
"Jeff Merkley knows that when Democrats attack each other, all it does is help Gordon Smith," says Merkley campaign manager Jon Isaacs. Merkley will likely agree to appear at a number of joint appearances—something like a debate—before the primary election, but probably not as soon as Novick would like.
It's unclear, though, what a debate between the two candidates would produce.
"These two guys agree on pretty much everything," says an insider who wishes to go unnamed. "And when there's that much agreement, you start looking for these little differences, or imagining differences that really aren't there, and then fighting about those."
Which brings the story back to the Iraq War resolution. In the absence of substantive disagreements, it's no surprise that the campaign rhetoric thus far would center on a single four-and-a-half-year-old vote, which was entirely symbolic and non-binding to begin with; there aren't a lot of ideological issues that distinguish Merkley and Novick.
No matter how worked up the bloggers get, though, there's little evidence that anyone outside the blogosphere is paying much attention to the race yet. That will likely change as the primary draws near—and it'll certainly draw more attention before the general election. The race between Smith and whoever gets the Democratic nomination is expected to be the most expensive race in Oregon's history.