Saturday, September 27, 2008

Oregon U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

Oregon U.S. Senate

September 27, 2008
38 Days Until Election Day

Status: Republican Incumbent
2004 Presidential Result: Blue State (West)

Outlook: Tossup (R) - (change from Leans Republican)

Oregon is a state that leans to Democrats and with that in mind, two term Republican Senator Gordon Smith has gone to great lengths over the past couple of years to distance himself from President Bush and the national GOP. While Smith once had the image of a popular conservative and a rising star in the party, he has even gone out of his way in recent months to play up his ties to Barack Obama. That is somewhat of a risky strategy for Smith in a tough election, because he should be very wary of alienating conservatives he will need to win.

Smith's Democrat opponent is State House Speaker Jeff Merkley. After some more prominent Democrats declined to face Smith, Merkley had jumped into the race and at first looked more like a second-tier opponent against a once popular and well-funded incumbent. But after a while, Merkley was managing to remain close in the polls and the Democrats also got a boost when a liberal third party candidate of some statewide prominence dropped out of the race. However, Merkley faced a much stronger than expected primary challenge from a liberal activist and just barely won the nomination. After that primary, Smith appeared to be ahead by double digits in some polls.

Things have dramatically tigthtened since though as Merkley pulled close to even in the polls and in the past week, has even taken a slight lead in a couple surveys. Suddenly, the race looks like a tossup, despite Smith's more moderate positioning on issues such as Iraq and domestic oil production. There is also an embarassing You Tube video of Merkely appearing ignorant of the Russian-Georgian conflict while being questioned by a reporter and stuffing his face with food at the same time.

I think the edge still has to go to Smith in this race, who despite having seen his approval numbers drop in recent months, has not really done anything to merit firing from the state's swing voters. But he runs a real risk, as Ohio Senator Mike DeWine did two years ago, of trying to appeal so much to the center, than the conservative base is not very motivated to support him and that drop in popularity emboldens Democrats to try to defeat him. Smith though at least can point to the recent endorsement of a former liberal Democrat Congresswoman from the state.

This is a race where Smith should be ahead by several points currently. That he is not should be of concern to his campaign and to all those want to see the seat remain in GOP hands. Merkely probably remains though a less than ideal candidate for the Democrats and one that might have a hard time closing the deal, assuming the conservative base, to whatever extent it exists in Oregon, decides to not abandon Smith.

Smith campaign link:

2008 U.S. Senate races predicted: 11 D, 15 R
Predicted Senate balance of power thus far: 50 D, 41 R


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