GOP Senator Banks on Obama in Oregon Race
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
PORTLAND, Ore. -- In the state where President Bush has his lowest popularity ratings in the nation, the incumbent Republican senator is reaching across the aisle and groping for the coattails of Barack Obama.
Sen. Gordon Smith, a two-term moderate in a state with a history of embracing centrist Republicans such as Mark Hatfield, has put the Democratic candidate for president in not one, not two, but three of his television ads.
How many mention John McCain?
"Zero," said Brooks Kochvar, manager of a Republican campaign that cannot accurately be described as running away from its party label. This is more of a sprint.
"Yeah, he's registered Republican," a timber man says in one Smith ad, "but . . ." But he worked with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), says another spot. Yet another invokes Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), whose name still appears on fading bumper stickers in liberal Portland. "If you need any more telling indication of where the race is, or where the Republican Party is, what else can you say?" said Tim Hibbits, a Portland pollster whose surveys are among the many showing Smith falling behind Democratic challenger Jeff Merkley.
"He's in a hell of a mess," Hibbits said. "This is a state that tends to lean Democratic to begin with. Bush basically has destroyed the Republican brand here."
On a national electoral map remade by the economic crisis, Oregon offers Democrats one of the trickier challenges in the quest for the 60 seats that would make their majority filibuster-proof.
Enthusiasm for Obama clearly has hastened Oregon's shift from swing state into the Democratic column. This year, registration drives brought 167,000 more Democrats onto rolls, against a rise of 7,000 for Republicans. Democrats now have a 43 percent to 32 percent registration advantage.
"That's indicative of the shift that's going on underneath the surface of our politics here," said William Lunch, a political scientist at Oregon State University, noting steady Democratic election gains since 2002.
Before last week, the Obama campaign had offered scant help to Merkley, who said, "He has so much money, he's doing his own thing here." But on Friday afternoon, Obama began showing up on Oregon television, addressing the camera directly to say "With Jeff Merkley in the U.S. Senate, we can get our country back on track." The spot was the first Obama has done for another candidate since endorsing Bill Foster in a House special election in Illinois last February.
In Oregon, the need for attention "down the ballot" was acute. The May 20 mail-in primary gave Obama a thumping victory over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton but held ominous implications for Merkley: On the Democratic side, more than 90,000 ballots came back with no choice ticked in the Senate race.
"When you vote, don't stop at the top," a new TV spot counsels first-time voters, one of a flurry of new ads pointing out that Merkley is the Democrat in the race. "Give Obama the team he needs."