Oregon House Speaker Merkley set to challenge Sen. Smith in 2008

Oregon state House Speaker Jeff Merkley is expected to announce a challenge to Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) in the next week, ending national Democrats’ long search for a challenger in what they say is still a top-tier target.

Merkley, who is credited with engineering the Democrats’ takeover of the state House in 2006, recently drew the attention of national Democrats after several others passed on the race. He has met with the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), Charles Schumer (N.Y.), and spoken with several freshman senators.

{mosads}He is set to file the appropriate paperwork by Aug. 1 and formally announce his candidacy within a week of the filing, a source close to Merkley confirmed Wednesday.

Merkley is currently on vacation with his family while he goes through the “advanced stages” of the decision-making process, the source said. Merkley was not available for comment.

“He’s there,” the source said of Merkley’s decision to run for Senate. “The most important thing to Jeff is that his family is 100 percent supportive.”

Merkley’s entry would fill a void in a race that has been passed on by several top Democrats in the state, including Rep. Peter DeFazio, former Gov. John Kitzhaber and Rep. Earl Blumenauer.

The source said national Democrats’ interest was paramount in Merkley’s decision, and that Merkley’s chats with freshman senators, including Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), convinced him that campaigning could be a positive experience, even considering the odds against him.

With the Democratic tilt of the state, Smith is building on his centrist credentials. Shortly after the 2006 elections, he spoke out forcefully against the Iraq war. More recently, he became the first Republican co-sponsor of an amendment to withdraw the troops by April 30, 2008.

Democrats contend that Smith has voted with Bush far too often and is attempting to look moderate because he’s up for reelection.

Smith raised more than $1 million in the second quarter and has more than $3.5 million in campaign cash already stashed away for the race. In 2002, he spent less than $6 million on a 56-40 win over Democrat Bill Bradbury.

Merkley has seen some fundraising success on a smaller scale, increasing receipts for a state legislative political action committee by 50 percent in recent years.

The 2008 race is expected to be much more expensive than Smith’s last one, as national Democrats have signaled a willingness to invest significant money in a top-tier candidate.

Former Justice Department attorney Steve Novick has been in the race for months and raised $190,000 in the second quarter, but he has not earned widespread party support for his bid.

As news of Merkley’s potential bid began to percolate Tuesday, Novick released an internal poll showing himself with slightly higher name identification than Merkley. Both are under 50 percent.

Novick trailed Smith by 23 points, 50-27, in a head-to-head match-up. Merkley trailed by a similar 49-25 margin.
National Democrats contend their polling shows Merkley closer, but have yet to release their figures.

“The fact is, we start off even,” Novick said. “People who pay close attention know who we are, and people who pay really close attention have good opinions of both of us. Each of us will just have to go out there and make the case that we’re the best person to replace Gordon Smith.”

Other potential Democratic candidates include radio host Jeff Golden, state Sen. Alan Bates, and businesswoman Eileen Brady.

A state GOP spokesman said Merkley’s recruitment represents a failure for Democrats.

“Jeff Merkley is the last choice for desperate Democrats and the first choice for people who love higher taxes,” spokesman Shawn Cleave said.

Bill Lunch, a political science professor at Oregon State University, said Merkley represents a best-of-the-rest candidate.

“I think Merkley is better than any of the other long-shot candidates,” Lunch said. “Politically, he’s very capable; he has good links all over the state. He will present himself well. The Democrats have done well on their ‘B’ list of potential candidates.”

Merkley is no stranger to Washington. After receiving his master’s degree from Princeton in the early 1980s, he went to work for the secretary of defense and then as an analyst in the Congressional Budget Office.

He returned to Oregon in the early 1990s, serving in a pair of executive roles before being elected to the state House. He became Democratic leader in September 2003 and Speaker last year when Democrats took over the House for the first time in decades.

A spokesman for the Oregon Democratic Party said a primary would help the party unseat Smith.

“Having a competitive primary focuses attention on how out of step Gordon Smith’s record is with Oregon,” spokesman Marc Siegel said. “Whoever wins will defeat President Bush’s personal U.S. senator in 2008.”

Smith’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Tags Democratic Party Democratic Party of Oregon Gordon H. Smith Gordon Smith Government of Oregon Jeff Merkley Jeff Merkley Oregon elections Person Career Person Communication Person Location Person Party Person Travel Politics Politics of the United States Quotation United States Senate election in Oregon

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