To understand the current Senate race in Oregon, perhaps the best thing to do is listen with your eyes closed. Hear the television commercials. Absorb awkward televised debates. And then try to guess which candidate is the Republican and which one is the Democrat.
You will hear one candidate talking about his past partnerships with liberals in Washington like Barack Obama, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton. He will say, over and over again, that America needs to end the war in Iraq. "For me, it's a matter of conscience," he intones, condemning the current policy.
The other candidate will mention President George W. Bush a lot. He will talk about Dick Cheney, about the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, and about the 2004 Energy Bill.
Here's where it gets a bit tricky. The first one is the Republican candidate, the 12-year incumbent Sen. Gordon Smith, who is holding on to his political office like a man hanging from a window ledge. And the other is the Democratic candidate, Jeff Merkely, the speaker of the Oregon statehouse, who was not Washington Democrats' first choice as a challenger, but one who looks likely to edge out a win anyway.
If you choose to keep listening, you will hear both men savage each other. Smith accuses Merkley of coddling rapists by opposing an expansion of the statute of limitations on certain crimes, and blowing state funds on expensive wood furniture during a retrofit of the Statehouse. Merkley accuses Smith of "one lie after another" and working in a Congress that sent jobs oversees and gave billionaires tax breaks. But these specific attacks don't matter as much as the national climate, and the sense of disillusionment among the state's voters.
To put it bluntly, the national mood is hitting Oregon, where registered Dems outnumber Republicans by a 43%-32% margin, like a tidal waveor as one political observer there put it, like a wall of gushing snowmelt. "Smith is a little bit like a salmon, swimming upstream against a fast running river," says Bill Lunch, a political science professor at Oregon State University. "In each successive election cycle in this decade in Oregon, the Democrats are doing better and better."
Oregon polls now show Merkely pulling ahead with a small lead, causing outside groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the conservative-friendly Freedom's Watch, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee to throw millions of dollars into the race. One widely disseminated third-party ad looped footage of Merkely trying to eat a hot dog as he took questions from reporters, prompting Smith to distance himself from the spot. "I would not belittle someone like that," Smith said, after it had saturated the airwaves.
No matter what he does or says, Smith's fate may be beyond his control. For years, he has made a point of positioning himself in Washington as a moderate Republican who could work across party lines, forging a close working relationship with the state's other senator, Ron Wyden, a Democrat. A former manager of his family's frozen vegetable company, Smith Frozen Foods, Smith has been ranked by National Journal in the ideological center of the Senate. He worked with Massachusetts liberal Ted Kennedy on a hate crimes bill in response to the brutal killing of Matthew Shepard, a gay student in Wyoming. Earlier this year, he joined with Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California to introduce a bill condemning a protester crackdown by the Chinese government in Tibet. Obama signed onto the bill as well.
But such stands offer Smith little cushion in the current environment. Merkley's latest ad doesn't even bother to mention Smith. Instead, it shows a seated Obama directly addressing the camera. "With Jeff Merkley in the U.S. Senate," Obama says. "We can get our country back on track." Recent October public polls show Obama beating John McCain by between 13 and 19 points in the state of Oregon.