Oregon race could spell end of Schumer streak
By MATTHEW DALY, Associated Press Writer 2 hours, 33
WASHINGTON - As head of the deep-pocketed Democratic
Senatorial Campaign Commission, New York Sen. Charles
Schumer hand-picked his party's nominee to take on
Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, the last Republican standing
on the West Coast. But apparently, Schumer forgot to
inform the state's voters.
Days before votes are counted in the Oregon primary,
Schumer's choice Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley
is in a tight battle with Portland lawyer and activist
Steve Novick. Polls show the race is too close to
If Novick pulls off the upset, it could be a rare loss
for Schumer, who acquired a reputation as a
recruitment kingmaker after steering Democrats back to
majority control of the Senate in 2006. This year,
Schumer is working to expand that majority, with some
Democrats even hoping for a 60-seat, filibuster-proof
majority in the Senate.
The DSCC is working overtime to make sure Merkley ekes
out a win. Schumer, who recruited Merkley after two
Democrats in the state's congressional delegation
declined to run, has sent fundraising appeals on
Merkley's behalf, and the DSCC has spent nearly
$300,000 on TV ads boosting Merkley.
All that effort has left Novick puzzled.
"Why they think Merkley can beat Gordon Smith if they
have to prop him up to beat me is beyond me," Novick
Schumer, who typically makes himself available to
reporters, declined to comment for this story.
But Matthew Miller, a spokesman for the DSCC, said the
committee's efforts can be over-interpreted. While the
DSCC has spent money defending Merkley, it has not
attacked Novick, he said.
"The ads we are running respond to Gordon Smith's
attacks" on Merkley, Miller said. "We came into this
race after Smith came in."
Miller and other Democrats in Washington acknowledge
that the Senate race is closer than expected, but they
say that whoever wins the party's nomination will give
Smith trouble in a state that is trending Democratic
and appears poised to give Barack Obama a solid
victory in Tuesday's presidential primary.
"We feel good about our chances in Oregon" in the
general election, Miller said, in part because of the
excitement generated by the Democratic presidential
Democrats say the Senate race is notable for the
attack ads by Smith, who has spent nearly $500,000 on
ads blasting Merkley on a variety on fronts, including
the fact that Merkley raised money for his
congressional campaign while the state legislature was
in session. Merkley says he did not take any money
from people doing business with the state during the
"He's trying to pick his opponent," Miller said of
Smith. "It's pretty clear he doesn't want to run
against Jeff Merkley in the fall."
Smith is the only incumbent senator in the country who
has "meddled in the other side's primary" this year,
Smith also declined to comment. R.C. Hammond, a
spokesman for the campaign, said Smith's ad merely
responded to an earlier ad by Merkley.
"Gordon Smith has been attacked online, in press
releases, in radio interviews and on TV by Democrats
for well over a year. And Jeff Merkley was the first
Senate candidate to attack Gordon Smith, and the
senator's campaign has responded," Hammond said.
Hammond rejected the idea that Smith prefers to face
Merkley over Novick, saying Smith is confident against
either one. "Senator Smith is pointing out Jeff
Merkley's fundraising hypocrisy and Steve Novick's
love of taxes and big government programs," Hammond
Even if Merkley ekes out a win, it is Novick who has
generated buzz in Oregon and beyond with clever TV
ads, including one that shows him opening a beer
bottle with his left hand which is a metal hook. The
4-foot-9 Novick was born with multiple physical
disabilities, but has parlayed a sharp wit into a
polished strategy that stresses his unique appeal.
"We think people are looking for something a little
different. I'm little, and I'm different," he says.
Merkley, for his part, stresses his progressive
credentials and accomplishments in the state House,
where he led Democrats to reclaim the majority in
2006. He reminds voters that Novick, for all his
outsider appeal, is a veteran political consultant who
has worked for some of the most prominent Democrats in
"While Steve has been advising campaigns and taking
potshots at everybody available, I've been in the
trenches fighting battles and winning time and time
again," he said.
Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts said Novick appears to
have a slight advantage, but added, "This race is very
much up in the air." A recent poll by Hibbitts showed
a whopping 43 percent of voters were undecided.
The closeness of the race should not be surprising,
Hibbitts said. While Merkley is considered the
establishment candidate, neither man is well-known.
Both started the race with less than 10 percent name
recognition in the state.
Even in recent weeks, the Senate race has received
less attention than usual because so much media and
voter attention is focused on the presidential
Still, Hibbitts said the close Democratic contest
should not give Smith much comfort in a year where
Democrats appear poised to make gains in both the
House and Senate.
"What you are seeing nationally is the same thing we
are seeing in Oregon: a literal collapse of the
Republican brand," Hibbitts said, citing last week's
Democratic victory in a Mississippi House district
long held by Republicans.
Whether it's Merkley or Novick, "Democrats have a real
shot out here," Hibbitts said. "When you have a
stampede going on, a lot of people get trampled."