|Oregon features this cycle’s highest profile Senate race with a competitive Democratic primary. The chief combatants for the Democratic nomination are state House Speaker Jeff Merkley and activist Steve Novick. Both would be far superior to the incumbent, Republican Gordon Smith. Senate Guru will unquestionably support whomever Oregon Democrats elect as their Senate nominee and will add that nominee to the Expand the Map! ActBlue page the day after their May 20 primary is decided.
Both Merkley and Novick are, on the issues, good progressives. Both bring impressive experience to the table. I believe that, if he wins the nomination, Novick can beat Gordon Smith. But I also believe that, if he wins the nomination, Merkley will beat Gordon Smith. For that and many other reasons, Senate Guru is proud to endorse Speaker Jeff Merkley in Oregon’s 2008 U.S. Senate race.The rationale for this endorsement goes well beyond the oversimplified notion of “electability.” Merkley’s experience better suits him both to take on Gordon Smith in the general election and to offer Oregon the best possible representation in the U.S. Senate.Both Merkley and Novick are, on the whole, very good on the issues, not deviating much from a common sense, progressive ideology. The most notable deviations for both may be Novick’s support for the death penalty and Merkley opposition to driver’s licenses for non-legal residents. Nevertheless, both candidates are for expanding access to health care, making education more affordable, protecting our environment, and getting us out of Bush’s War in Iraq, a war that Gordon Smith enabled all along the way and with which he didn’t even rhetorically find fault until his election cycle came up.So what better suits Merkley’s experience for beating Gordon Smith? After the 2002 election, the composition of the Oregon state House of Representatives was a 35-25 majority for Republicans. After the 2004 election, it was a 33-27 majority for Republicans. Merkley, then House Democratic Leader, orchestrated Democrats’ reclaiming of the House majority in the 2006 election, gaining the seats necessary to earn a 31-29 majority for Democrats. And with that slim majority, he presided over what is regarded as one of the most progressive legislative sessions in decades. That evidences both the grassroots outreach to win back the majority and the legislative management prowess to achieve progressive goals with only a narrow partisan majority.Some supporters of Novick’s have been trying to push the analogy of Merkley is to Novick as Clinton is to Obama, suggesting that Novick is the agent of change while Merkley is the candidate of the establishment. I don’t think this analogy is at all accurate. While, as Speaker, Merkley does enjoy significant support from Oregon’s political establishment, Merkley’s Speakership has been marked by progressive change built from the grassroots up. (And, for all the Novick campaign’s touting itself as the insurgent outsider campaign, though Novick lags well behind Merkley in significant endorsements, Novick is not shy about publicizing his endorsements, even those from establishment figures. This suggests to me that Novick’s critique of Merkley’s establishment support is actually just a case of “sour grapes.”) A more appropriate analogy to Presidential candidates would be Merkley is to Novick as Edwards is to Kucinich. Merkley is the populist son of a mill worker fighting for the working class and Novick is the quirky upstart.
Critics of Merkley’s suggest that he might not be an exciting enough candidate to beat Smith. I’d argue that “exciting” is hardly the accurate measure of electoral potential in this case. Consider the federal legislators that Oregon sends to Washington D.C., like Senator Ron Wyden and Congressmen Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio. These guys aren’t political rock stars. They’re not the guys that frequently populate the Sunday morning political discussion shows. What they are are very smart legislators and very effective representatives on behalf of their constituents. Jeff Merkley best fits this mold.
Also, since announcing his campaign in mid-April 2007, Steve Novick raised about $889,000 through the end of March 2008 – or about $77,000 per month. Jeff Merkley announced at the beginning of August 2007 and raised almost $1.4 million through the end of March 2008 – or about $172,000 per month. Merkley’s far superior fundraising operation will better enable him to take on Gordon Smith. Neither candidate likely will be able to match Smith dollar for dollar, especially given that, at the end of March 2008, Gordon Smith’s bankroll stood at about $5.15 million. But Merkley’s edge over Novick is significant. Still, the Democratic nominee will have to rely on financial assistance from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). So it doesn’t help Novick that his campaign has already taken shots at the DSCC as trying to “hijack” the process.
Criticisms of the DSCC are not the only comments Novick and his campaign have made that make us question his commitment to the Democratic Party and his ability to work with national Party leaders’ assistance to beat Gordon Smith. Novick has taken rather harsh shots at both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It also stood out that, when asked who he’d vote for in Oregon’s Senate race if he couldn’t vote for himself, heresponded with John Frohnmayer, the Independent candidate for Senate. Only when pressed on the question did he – seemingly begrudgingly – offer that he would cast a vote for the eventual Democratic nominee. Novick said that he’d grade Merkley’s record as Speaker with a B+/A-, and struggled to explain why he couldn’t see Merkley as an effective Senator given the solid grade he gave him as Speaker. Novick also, very much in the Kucinich mold, gives far too much credence to Fox News. Further still, Novick caused quite an uproar among the netroots when he belittled blogging as “a way for a number of people to waste a vast quantity of time,” a comment for which he later apologized.
I also wonder a bit about, for lack of a better term, Novick’s “attention span.” When asked why he left his Department of Justice job in Washington D.C., the first thing out of his mouth was, “I left that job because I’d been doing it for eight-and-a-half years, and that’s a long time to do anything.” I’d remind him that a Senate term is six years, and that Oregonians could be best served by a Democrat looking to serve multiple terms and build up seniority. Since his job at the DOJ, it seems that Novick has not held the same job for more than two or three years, usually focusing on specific political campaigns and ballot initiatives. I wouldn’t want to see him, frankly, get bored of the Senate after a few years, thinking that six years might be “a long time to do anything,” especially considering that the U.S. Senate is an intentionally deliberative body and can be at times frustratingly slow-moving.
Novick supporters have pointed to an early-April primary poll showing Novick at 23% and Merkley at 11%. Not only were 40% of poll respondents undecided, but Novick had had the airwaves to himself at the time the poll was taken, with Merkley putting up his first TV ads after the poll. Someone could easily say that Novick should be disappointed to only have clocked in at 23% given his monopoly on the airwaves at the time of the poll. Support in the primary will be quite fluid; and, though the primary is now less than a month away, until polling reflects the impacts of both camp’s paid media campaigns, it won’t be an accurate reflection of how the primary will turn out.
In its editorial endorsing Speaker Merkley, The Register-Guard of Eugene calls Speaker Merkley “by far the best prepared” of the Democrats running for Senate in 2008. The R-G also calls the 2007 House session, the first over which Merkley presided as Speaker, “the most productive in recent memory, with important achievements in the areas of education funding, civil rights, consumer protection and budgetary stability.”
Over the last fourteen months, Survey USA has clocked Gordon Smith’s approval as between 46 and 52 percent, and his disapproval as between 38 and 45 percent. Those are markedly vulnerable numbers, especially when you compare them with Democratic senior SenatorRon Wyden’s Survey USA numbers – an approval in the low 60s over the last several months, and a disapproval no higher than 32 percent during the last six months. Smith’s hallmark is a muddy record – frequently voting the way George W. Bush wants him to, while offering rhetoric meant to appease his electorate as much as possible. Democrats need their strongest candidate to hold Smith accountable for his record of putting George W. Bush’s priorities above the priorities of Oregon’s families. Jeff Merkley is that candidate.
Click here for the new senate guru blog…