DSCC looks to stir up Oregon race with new DeFazio poll

A poll released this week by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) has rekindled speculation about potential challengers to Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) in 2008, despite the polled challenger’s assurances that he has no interest in running.

Conducted by Grove Insight in February, the poll shows Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) leading Smith 42-38 in a head-to-head match-up. It comes two weeks after an independent poll showed a majority of both Democrats and Republicans in the state approved of Smith.

Even the DSCC’s numbers show Smith with a solid favorable rating of 56 percent, versus 37 percent unfavorable. But they also show that a big-name challenger has a chance to beat him.

At this point in the cycle, the parties generally use publicly released polls as recruiting tools. DeFazio and other top Democrats like former Gov. John Kitzhaber have pulled their names out in the early going, leaving the DSCC with one of only a few recruiting holes in its top states.

DeFazio told The Hill in January that he had no interest in leaving the House, citing his new subcommittee chairmanship and an aversion to raising the money required of a Senate race.

“I’m holding a gavel for the first time in my 20-year career. I’m not looking to do anything else,” he said.

DeFazio’s office said the congressman stands by those comments, and campaign manager Jen Gilbreath said in a statement that the congressman “has not changed his mind about running for the Senate.”

But that hasn’t stopped the DSCC from polling DeFazio and apparently holding out hope that he can be recruited.
“The poll shows that DeFazio would be an excellent candidate and could beat Gordon Smith,” DSCC spokesman Matt Miller said.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) is the other House member often cited as a top potential challenger to Smith, and Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) hasn’t ruled out a bid either. The DSCC declined to say whether it had conducted polls on Blumenauer or Wu, and it would not comment more generally on recruiting efforts.

Democratic consultant Steve Novick is about the only one to express strong interest in the seat and has informed other potential candidates that he will decide by May 1. Those other potential candidates include Smith’s 2002 challenger, Bill Bradbury.

Despite DSCC efforts and lots of early hype due to Smith’s impassioned post-election speech critical of the Iraq war, the race remains in the Cook Political Report’s list of “solid Republican” seats.

With the poll, the DSCC sought to reassure potential candidates and observers that Oregon is in play in 2008.

Two other vulnerable Republican senators — Norm Coleman (Minn.) and John Sununu (N.H.) — are drawing multiple opponents, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) will likely get a challenge from Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine). But Smith has yet to draw nearly as much interest from prospective challengers.

Democrats also have a candidate in Colorado, where Rep. Mark Udall (D) will run for the open seat left by retiring Sen. Wayne Allard (R). That leaves Oregon and North Carolina as top targets without top candidates. Similar to the DeFazio poll, the DSCC publicized a survey a month ago showing only 35 percent of North Carolina voters are committed to vote for Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) in 2008.

Smith was first elected in 1996 after narrowly losing a special election to now-Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) earlier that year, and he beat Bradbury 56-40 in 2002. His office declined to comment on the DSCC poll.

DeFazio was popular enough to take 44 percent of the vote in a primary loss to Wyden in that special election.

Another concern for Democrats would be the open House seat that DeFazio would leave behind. It is a quintessential swing district and could set up a tug-of-war between House Democrats and Senate Democrats.

DeFazio has not taken less than 60 percent of the vote since he was elected in 1986, but the district went for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) by just 1,000 votes in 2004 and for President Bush by 5 percent in 2000.

Some of DeFazio’s moves suggest he’s sensitive to the possibility of an open seat.

A month after an election in which he beat Republican Jim Feldkamp by 25 points, DeFazio’s campaign distributed a press release questioning some of Feldkamp’s amended financial reports, which removed reference to a loan.

Feldkamp is a self-funder whom some say could be formidable in an open-seat race. In two races against DeFazio, however, he hasn’t taken more than 38 percent.

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