IN MANY WAYS, Senator Gordon Smith is a relic of a distant past—that period long, long ago in the mid-'90s, when Republicans somehow conned America into believing they had a plan for the future.
In the time since—culminating in last November's mid-term election—Democrats have taken back the country, and now control every branch of Oregon's government. Despite a few dire predictions of the future, the state is—as of this moment—solidly blue. So blue, in fact, that Gordon Smith is the only Republican to hold statewide office. But if Democrats have anything to do with it, he'll soon join the ranks of newly unemployed former GOP senators.
Smith, who's been in office since 1997, is up for reelection in 2008. Already, hopeful Democrats are rubbing their hands together and maniacally twisting their handlebar moustaches, conjuring up a winning strategy—so far, that mostly means trying to convince popular, yet reluctant, politicians, like Congressmen Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio, to step in. But with a slim majority in the US Senate at stake, Democrats have no time to dillydally.
Here are the candidates who can get the job done.
We Get It—
"A Strong Left Hook." Ha Ha.
On Wednesday, April 18, the man described by many as one of the state's brightest political minds will become the first candidate to officially announce. Steve Novick has been the brain behind many successful campaigns, helping to take down Bill Sizemore's ballot measures in 2000 and last year's anti-tax Measure 48. He led a push to reform the state lottery in the late-'90s, ultimately leading to more money for schools and less to bar owners. Oh, and he worked as an attorney for the Department of Justice under Jimmy Carter, suing corporate polluters to pay for the costs of environmental cleanup.
"I have more campaign experience than many first-time candidates," says Novick. "And I know the federal budget better than most—probably better than Gordon Smith."
But could all that experience be an indirect liability? How well can someone who's spent years as a political consultant switch to being a candidate?
"You might be concerned that a political strategist will run with one eye on public opinion polls," Novick explained, "but what I've learned is that people don't vote for you because they agree with everything you say. They vote for you because they agree with a few things, but mostly because they can trust you."
As for Smith, Novick says he "shows an ability to ignore inconvenient truths."
"He always sounds sincere, and I'm sure he is sincere, but he doesn't have a good relationship with the facts," Novick says, pointing to Smith's long support (which only ended recently) for the Iraq War and denial that fossil fuels are leading to global warming.
Smith's got a laundry list of vulnerabilities—he's voted to lower wages for restaurant workers, give tax shelter to multinational corporations, expand bankruptcy laws to enrich credit card companies at the expense of the working class, and is a staunch supporter of Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy. At the same time, he supports expansion of some public services, while gutting the taxes that pay for them.
"Smith's approach is to support anything that increases the federal deficit," Novick says. "You could call him the Senator from Visa, both figuratively and literally."
"His campaign might call me a wild-eyed radical," he adds, "but by comparison on fiscal responsibility, I'm a 1950s traditionalist."
Also in Novick's favor: An almost complete unwillingness to take himself seriously ("I take issues seriously, not myself," he says). That's handy, so to speak, given that he's under five feet and has a hook for a left arm. He's long used it to his advantage, pulling out the "Oregon needs a leader with a strong left hook" quip to anyone who'll listen. He's banking on his literal hook being his metaphorical hook, drawing people in with candor and humor, and then hitting them with serious policy positions.
He picked Portland's Longshoremen's Hall as the location to announce his candidacy for two reasons: The union's long history of political activism, and one of its symbols—a hook.
The Man Who Doesn't Know
In the last three weeks, a grassroots movement has formed around Congressman Peter DeFazio's effort to unseat Smith, delivering campaign cash and promises of volunteer hours. Only trouble is, DeFazio isn't running. At least he hasn't admitted it.
The 10-term congressman from southwestern Oregon is staying mum about his plans. In fact, neither DeFazio nor his staff would return calls seeking comment about the possibility, but that coyness hasn't stopped the "Draft DeFazio" movement.
On April 3, the political bloggers behind Loaded Orygun (loadedorygun.blogspot.com), along with other political activists around the state, launched defazioforsenate.blogspot.com with the intention of raising money for DeFazio's theoretical run against Smith. In the first week, they reached their first goal–$2,000 and 100 donors. It's since exploded, despite the distance DeFazio has put between himself and the ad-hoc campaign.
"DeFazio is the best candidate overall," says TJ, one of Loaded Orygun's founders. "Personally, I'd pick Earl Blumenauer to represent myself, but Peter represents the rest of the state. There is, after all, going to be some amount of anti-Portland sentiment in the election."
Like Novick, TJ quickly ticked off Smith's vulnerabilities. "Iraq is his biggest problem," he says. "But he's also voted for the Federal Marriage Amendment, voted against habeas corpus, against the minimum wage. As a profile, [those things] far outweigh his moderate stance."
The campaign may certainly be on to something—even Novick is quick to mention his adoration for DeFazio, whom he calls "a major political hero of mine."
"Peter DeFazio is the only politician to whom I've ever written a $1,000 check," Novick says with a laugh. "And that represented 10 percent of my net worth at the time."
So what'll Novick do if DeFazio steps in? Not surprisingly, he won't answer that question, only saying, "That would be a great problem for Oregon Democrats to have."
Unlike the shortage of candidates, there's no lack of potential candidates' names bandied about.
Portland-area Congressman Earl Blumenauer? Won't comment.
New Democrat State Senator Ben Westlund? Here's the answer from his chief of staff, Stacey Dycus: "This is not a BS answer, but we are so totally consumed with the session right now, with getting healthcare legislation pushed through, that we haven't had time to think about it."
Former Governor John Kitzhaber? He hasn't said anything on record, but observers note that his healthcare reform-minded Archimedes Movement is statewide and looks a lot like an early candidate movement.
Curiously, it also looks like all of Smith's moderate posturing could get him a primary fight further from the right. The anti-tax Club for Growth is making waves about floating a more conservative candidate—rumors are that it could be Bill Sizemore—in the GOP primary. At a Portland City Club forum in February, conservative talk show host Victoria Taft showed disdain for Smith, calling him a "panderer." Finally, something conservatives and liberals can agree on.