Ten-term Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) defused talk of a potential Senate bid yesterday, citing seniority and money concerns in saying he has no interest in making his second run at the upper chamber.
Speculation about challengers to Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) has been rampant since his impassioned speech critical of the Iraq war last month.
With the Democrats in the majority, DeFazio will assume the chairmanship of the Highways, Transit and Pipelines Subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee. And he makes no secret of his loathing for the kind of fundraising required for a Senate run.
“I had my run at the Senate,” DeFazio said. “I’m holding a gavel for the first time in my 20-year career. I’m not looking to do anything else — become the junior senator from Oregon with no seniority and not chairing a committee.”
DeFazio lost narrowly to now-Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in a special-election primary in 1995 and has twice declined to run against Smith. He said Smith has benefited from “very weak opponents” in each of his campaigns and is still vulnerable.
Many saw Smith’s speech as evidence of that vulnerability. Some Republicans accused him of over-the-top verbiage and some Democrats accused him of pandering with his reelection battle now in sight.
Whether it was too much, too political, both or neither, the speech placed Smith right where he has sought to carve out a reputation for himself — the middle. And in a blue state turning bluer, that positioning could prove vital over the next two years.
A two-term incumbent elected with 50 percent and reelected with 56 percent, Smith could well emerge as an attractive target for Democrats this cycle, operatives from both parties say.
“He won’t get a pass,” said Oregon GOP consultant Chuck Adams. “If you’re the Democratic senatorial committee, you look at what just happened nationally — anything’s possible anywhere. I would assume that [the committee] has Oregon at the top of the list, if not the top three or four.”
In his speech, Smith called the U.S.’s current course in Iraq “absurd” and potentially “criminal.” But he declined to directly criticize President Bush, and he has maintained his sentiments were apolitical and had built up inside of him for months.
“It certainly demonstrates what kind of senator Gordon Smith is, which is an independent thinker who will speak out on important issues of the day,” Smith’s Chief of Staff John Easton said.
Adams, who worked on Smith’s second Senate campaign, said the senator was “reflecting the sentiments that a lot of Americans feel.”
Smith’s foes have cried foul and accused him of resolutely backing Bush for too long to pull off such a sharp turn. Oregon State political science professor Bill Lunch counts himself somewhere in between.
“He strikes me as a guy who’s pretty sincere,” Lunch said. “I think he genuinely feels that way, independent of any political calculation. But you don’t get elected senator without some political savvy.”
With a number of Republicans coming out more forcefully against the war in Iraq in recent weeks, Smith could be ahead of the game. Notably since Smith’s speech, a pair of senators up for reelection in 2008, Sens. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), have offered dour assessments of the war and denounced the idea of adding troops there.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who is also mentioned as a potential challenger to Smith in 2008, initially called Smith’s remarks “better late than never.”
Speaking yesterday, he declined to impugn Smith’s motives but did say Iraq would be a major issue in 2008 for the “21 Republican senators who are up for reelection who overwhelmingly supported the war.”
“I’m hearing a wave of reactions, public and private, from the other side of the aisle, who now are giving voice to their doubts about Iraq,” Blumenauer said.
Blumenauer and DeFazio, who both voted against the Iraq war resolution, have been the two most frequently mentioned potential opponents for Smith.
Democratic two-term former Gov. John Kitzhaber and state schools Superintendent Susan Castillo have reportedly pulled their names from consideration. Others mentioned include State Treasurer Randall Edwards, Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis and state Sen. Ben Westlund. Independent John Frohnmayer, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts under the first President Bush, has also hinted at a run.
Blumenauer shrugs off questions about a potential 2008 Senate bid but said there is plenty of time for potential challengers to decide. According to Federal Election Commission filings, Blumenauer has $373,000 cash-on-hand, while Smith has over $2 million.
Despite being in a safe district where he’s never taken less than 67 percent of the vote, Blumenauer advertised statewide for the first time in his career in 2006. But he, like DeFazio, has now parlayed his seniority into a choice committee assignment; he will now sit on the Ways and Means Committee.
Blumenauer said the ads were a symptom of his increasing statewide and national presence since 2004 rather than an effort to build name recognition for a statewide run.
Westlund is the latest potential candidate on the receiving end of some hype. A former Republican, he dropped his party and ran for governor as an independent this year. After dropping out of the race in August, he later endorsed Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski and became a Democrat last month after being reelected to the state Senate.
Democratic consultant Jim Ross, who worked for Kulongoski in the race, said Westlund’s maneuvers have upped his stock significantly in Democratic circles: “It certainly helped the governor.”
Westlund’s campaign manager, Stacey Dycus, said Westlund is not thinking about a Senate run at this point.