Policy Perspective
A Five Course Feast
...and assorted political tidbits
By Tim Hibbitts

U.S. Senate
Oregon has a variety of interesting contests from the federal to municipal level on this year’s political plate. The main item on the menu is the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Gordon Smith. After several higher profile Democrats passed on running against Smith, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee recruited House Speaker Jeff Merkley to challenge the incumbent. That was supposed to be that, but a funny thing happened on the way to Merkley’s expected primary victory. He is being hard pressed by Democratic activist Steve Novick.

At present, neither candidate is very well known, and a poll taken some weeks ago by Riley Research suggested that nearly 75 percent of Democratic voters were still undecided on the race. Each Democrat presents a different challenge to Smith, with the stipulation that Smith is the favorite over either. But observers would do well to watch this one carefully.

Merkley offers a more conventional challenge to the incumbent, as he has a more typical resume and a record as an elected official. But he is also finding out (as many previous Oregon House Speakers have) that most voters, including Democrats, have no idea who he is. By contrast, Novick is reasonably well known to the activist wing of the party but not yet to the general public.

The primary will probably turn on three factors. The first is money. If only one of the candidates has the financial resources to compete, obviously that candidate will have a real advantage. The second is enthusiasm. It appears that Novick has an edge as of now in that category (per the activist wing of the party) that could help him in the primary. The third is what kind of candidate Democrats want to send out against Smith. If they are looking for the safe choice, Merkley rates the edge. If they are looking for something a bit different, then keep an eye on Novick.

From his physical disabilities to his more fiery rhetoric, Novick is definitely not politics or candidate as usual. This year, with voters — especially Democratic voters — not wanting more of the same, that could be a real advantage. In my view, Novick has more upside potential against Smith because of the broader political climate. But he also has more downside than Merkley. Steve Novick is a scrapper, a populist liberal whose rhetoric may connect with Democratic primary voters. But if he wins the primary, he will need to calibrate his message in a way that can get him to a majority of the vote in the general election. He will need to keep his populist message but hone it in a way that connects with more than just the Democratic primary electorate.

To be clear, while both are underdogs, in my view either Democrat could wind up beating Gordon Smith this year. Democrats who want to roll the dice might take a chance on Novick; he would probably drive Smith nuts. Democrats who want a more conventional, and hence safer, candidate will find Merkley the better bet.

Fifth Congressional District
Next on the menu … With Darlene Hooley’s retirement in the Fifth District, a rare open congressional seat is in play. Again, the broader playing field strongly favors the Democrats this year, but the Fifth District is almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats (Bush won it in 2004), so the Republicans have to look at this as one of the few potential bright spots in what looks to be a bleak year at the congressional level. Both parties have contested primaries, with the Republican battle between 2006 nominee Mike Erickson and Kevin Mannix.

The latter may finally have found a general election he can win. Mannix doesn’t have to worry about dealing with getting votes in Portland (the size of his defeat in the city of Portland in both 2000 and 2002 cost him the attorney general and the gubernatorial races, respectively), and he ran well in the Fifth District in previous elections. I suspect that both candidates will have significant resources to bring to bear, and I also suspect this is a campaign that will see a few sharp elbows thrown.

While there are several candidates on the Democrats’ side, the leaders are State Senator Kurt Schrader and Steve Marks. Schrader would seem to have a clear advantage here, since he holds elective office in the district already and has a base to work from. Regardless of who comes out of the respective primaries, this will be a hotly contested race in the fall, and one of the very few Democratic seats in the country that Republicans might actually have a chance to pick up.

The Republicans had a tough time finding candidates to run in the second tier statewide offices (secretary of state, treasurer and attorney general). Late in the game Rick Dancer, a television news anchor from Eugene, filed in the Secretary of State’s race, and Allen Alley filed for State Treasurer, ensuring that the Republicans will at least contest those positions.

Readers should keep in mind that Republicans have lost 19 of the last 22 statewide partisan elections in Oregon (Gordon Smith holds two of the three victories), so it is likely that the Democrats will be favored. Nonetheless, the GOP contenders ought to at least make these contests competitive. But to pull out a win they are going to need a break or two.

Secretary of State
The Democratic contest for Secretary of State features no less than three state senators (Rick Metsger, Kate Brown and Vicki Walker) running for the same office. This surely must set some kind of record for percentage of a party caucus running for the same office. Frankly, I have no idea who is going to win this primary, and I suspect the candidates are in the same boat. Walker and Brown will probably appeal more to the activist base, Metsger may appeal more to moderate Democrats, but it’s anyone’s guess as to who will emerge to take on Dancer.

The general election battle between Alley and Ben Westlund for State Treasurer probably favors Westlund, the Republican turned Independent turned Democrat. While neither candidate is well known to voters statewide, a slice of voters is at least aware of Westlund, while Alley starts from ground zero. That isn’t always a negative. If he has the resources to make himself known, then he can craft his own image and message to voters without them having any preconceived notions about him. Portland Mayor A race that could be interesting is the Portland mayoral scrap between Commissioner Sam Adams and businessman Sho Dozono. A poll our firm conducted for the Portland Tribune in early February gave Adams a hefty 41 to 20 percent edge over Dozono. But, a huge 36 percent of the voters were undecided, so Dozono has a chance to make this race competitive.

At first, coverage was focused on whether or not Dozono violated Portland’s taxpayer financed election rules by getting a look at a poll conducted by pollster Amy Simon and funded by Portland lobbyist Len Bergstein. Now Dozono has announced he will stay in the race though he has lost public financing. But he is just weeks away from the primary with limited time to raise the money he needs to be competitive. On the other hand, there is some risk of blowback on Adams here — depending on how the issue plays out, the Adams campaign could be accused of attempting to stifle a political challenger through gamesmanship.

For those outside the Portland area who may not be familiar with the rules of this election, it will be decided in the primary if any candidate gets 50-percent plus one vote. Adams clearly has a chance to end the race in May; Dozono’s goal will be to hold Adams to something in the range of 46-48 percent of the vote and get into the low 40 percent range himself. There are a number of other candidates (12!) that have filed for mayor, and Dozono needs their help to hold Adams under the winning number.

It is worth recalling that in the 2004 primary, Tom Potter outpolled Jim Francesconi 42 percent to 34 percent, but 24 percent of the vote went to the almost two dozen other candidates who filed for the primary. One thing no observer should be confused about, regardless of who wins the Portland mayoral race: The city’s politics will remain well to the left of center. The race, if it is about anything, will be about personality and process, not about ideology.

U.S. President
And a final course, a brief follow up on the presidential race. In last month’s column, I noted that there were increasing signs of a serious split between the supporters of Senators Obama and Clinton, and if the campaign went on beyond the Texas and Ohio primaries, those splits were likely to be exacerbated. Sure enough, that fissure has widened and deepened to the degree that substantial numbers of each candidate’s supporters now say they would be dissatisfied if the other candidate won the nomination. Further, polls that a month ago indicated Obama was a stronger candidate against McCain now show much more muddied results, and Obama has taken real damage in several key swing states (Ohio, Pennsylvania and Missouri, to name three) due to attacks from Clinton and the issue of his minister’s fiery statements.

Clinton has her own problems. A Rasmussen national poll in late March showed her getting the support of only 55 percent of African-Americans in a matchup with John McCain. That figure is nothing short of astonishing. Make no mistake, that is not an increase in positive support for John McCain, it is a reflection of the anger of black voters against the Clintons. Obama has his own demographic problems. After breaking through with older and blue collar white voters in Wisconsin, he has since slipped back with those demographic categories nationally and in Pennsylvania, the site of the next key primary battle on April 22.

Can the Democrats fix these problems? As of now the answer is yes. Public opinion is not static, as we have found out repeatedly in the past. But each day that goes by opens fresh wounds, angers supporters of both candidates, and further distances them from each other, giving the Republicans a better shot at winning than they have any right to expect. If I were a Democratic superdelegate, I would agree to the proposal by Governor Phil Bredesen of Tennessee that uncommitted superdelegates as a bloc endorse a candidate immediately after the end of the primary process on June 3 and hope for the best. Otherwise, if the fight goes all the way to the Democratic Convention, there may not be enough left of Clinton or Obama to scrape off the floor. Maybe it’s time to bring back Al Gore.

Tim Hibbitts is a partner in the firm Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall Inc.

BrainstormNW - April 2008

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