Oregon's GOP Senator In Tough Race
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This week, we're going to check in on some competitive Senate races around the country. One big question is whether Democrats will pick up enough seats to win a veto-proof majority. Today, we'll talk about Oregon where Republican Gordon Smith is facing a tough challenge from the speaker of the Oregon House, Democrat Jeff Merkley, and where golf clubs have become a campaign issue.
Jeff Mapes is tracking that race for The Oregonian. Jeff, explain how did golf clubs become a campaign issue?
Mr. JEFF MAPES (Senior Political Reporter, The Oregonian): Well, Gordon Smith is a pretty wealthy guy, he's in the food processing business, also an avid golfer. And years ago - gosh, 15, 20 years ago, he bought some very rare golf clubs for over $1 million. The Democrats have been teasing him about that as somebody who's kind of out of touch if he's spending that kind of money on golf clubs.
BLOCK: This sounds like the challenger here, Jeff Merkley, is trying to paint Gordon Smith as a fat cat, also a Washington insider. Gordon Smith, obviously, tells another story. And let's listen to part of a recent TV ad he's been running.
(Soundbite of political ad)
Senator GORDON SMITH (Republican, Oregon): Times are tough. Rising prices on gas, food, health care, families need help. That's why I choose to reach across the aisle with John Kerry to protect homeowners from foreclosure, with Barack Obama for better gas mileage. And when President Bush tried to cut Medicaid, the Oregon health plan, I said no.
BLOCK: So you've got a Republican incumbent aligning himself with John Kerry and Barack Obama and running away from George Bush. How's that going over with the Oregon voters?
Mr. MAPES: It's a very tight race. Polls are showing it very close. And he is in the classic position of a politician who's personally been pretty popular through the years, the last statewide Republican stand-in in Oregon. But he's always managed to have just kind of enough Democratic support to do okay. And this is, as you know, a very tough year for Republicans. Democratic registration has gone really way up in Oregon, and that's why you see ads like this.
BLOCK: If you look at Gordon Smith's record in his two terms in the Senate, does it back up this notion that he is in fact a bipartisan maverick?
Mr. MAPES: Well, you know, it really depends on how you look at his record. I mean, there's really two ways to look at it. The Democrats prefer to look at this long list of bills where he supported President Bush, tax cuts that they say are tilted toward the wealthy and big corporations. Gordon Smith himself would like to focus on the issues where he has parted ways with the president -things like hate crime legislation for gays, on higher Medicaid spending, Medicare spending, that sort of thing. So, you know, it just depends on how you want to look at it.
BLOCK: And tell us more about the challenger, Democrat Jeff Merkley.
Mr. MAPES: Jeff Merkley is the House speaker for just one term and was not expecting to run for the Senate this year. Initially, the Democrats focused on some other possibilities, primarily members of the state's congressional delegation. Everybody else passed, so they recruited Merkley to run. And the important factor in this is the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has been a huge help to Merkley's campaign.
They helped give him aid. They helped him get through a very tough primary. He started out with very low name recognition. So, this is all a learning experience for him and something that, you know, he probably wouldn't have predicted two years ago.
BLOCK: Now, Oregon went for Al Gore in 2000, went for John Kerry in 2004...
Mr. MAPES: Right.
BLOCK: ...and looks pretty solid for Barack Obama. What are the potential coattail factors here?
Mr. MAPES: I think that is the primary factor that Gordon Smith is worrying about this time. The Smith campaign very much recognizes that there are going to have to be a lot of Obama-Smith voters in November. And there was a considerable drop-off in voting from the presidential primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and this very hot Senate race. I think 80,000 or 90,000 people voted in the presidential race who didn't vote in the Senate race. And Gordon Smith would certainly like to see that in the fall.
You know, young Democrats maybe who haven't voted before come out, vote for president and not vote in the Senate race. So that's one reason why he's been also raising doubts about Jeff Merkley.
BLOCK: We've been talking with Jeff Mapes who joined us from Portland, Oregon. He's senior political reporter with The Oregonian. Jeff, thanks so much.
Mr. MAPES: Great. Thank you.