This past Wednesday morning, August 1, Jeff Merkley, Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives, was widely expected to file the paperwork creating his campaign committee to unseat US Senator Gordon Smith.
Merkley's move came after months of speculation; rumors surfaced that he had been in talks with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) two months ago ["Senate, Anyone," News, May 24]. Now, he's making his first definitive move into the race.
That means he'll be joining longtime political consultant Steve Novick in the effort to knock off the Republican Smith—but it also means they'll be facing off against each other in next year's May primary. Even though they may be battling for the Democratic nomination for the seat, Novick wants to take a collaborative approach to the race—by traveling the state with Merkley and appearing at joint events to talk about the need to replace Smith.
Aside from Smith, the one thing they may both have to contend with, though, is the sense that neither of them were "first tier" choices for the race. Those names—Peter DeFazio, Earl Blumenauer, John Kitzhaber, etc.—have dropped off the list, either through official announcements (DeFazio and Blumenauer), or through continued silence (Kitzhaber). Still, insiders believe that the "second choice" status will disappear once the campaigns shift into high gear—especially now that Merkley and Novick have become the top tier by being the only ones in the race.
A pair of interesting poll numbers preceded Merkley's announcement. Novick's campaign released a poll last week that claimed to show that he has higher name recognition than Merkley (46 percent to 39 percent), and that Smith's "reelect" number (the people who say they'll definitely vote for him again) is at 32 percent.
A separate poll, paid for by the DSCC, showed that Merkley was only six points below Smith in the ratings, and that was weeks before Merkley announced. Merkley and Novick aside, both polls say the same thing: Gordon Smith is vulnerable.
"Gordon Smith's approval ratings have plummeted," says DSCC spokesperson Matthew Miller. "We believe Jeff Merkley will be an extremely strong candidate who will help change Washington, DC in a way that Oregonians want."
(As evidence of the careful, never-give-a-direct-answer way politics work, that was Miller's response to the question, "Is the DSCC going to support Merkley in the primary against Novick?")
With a slim, one-vote majority in the senate, all eyes will be on a handful of contested races, with Oregon being somewhere between the middle and the top of that list.
In the days leading up to his announcement, Merkley was laying low, not returning phone calls from reporters. At press time, it was unclear how his candidacy for senate would impact his current duties as speaker of the house—or whether he'd step down from his position. The legislature has already scheduled a special session for next February—three months before the May primary, which is otherwise crucial campaigning time.