It is too early to know for sure whether Independent Party candidate John Frohnmayer will have enough mojo or money to become a viable contender in Oregon’s Senate election in November 2008, but analysts say it seems unlikely.
The bigger question is what impact his presence will have on the Republican and Democratic candidates in what could be one of the closest races of 2008.
The prevailing sentiment is that Frohnmayer — the one-time chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts under former President George H.W. Bush — is more of a threat to Democrats than to Sen. Gordon Smith (R), who is seeking a third term.
But with a long and varied political history and an eclectic platform and roots in the Oregon GOP, where Frohnmayer could find support is very much a topic for debate.
“Frohnmayer is going to have to be able to make the case that they shouldn’t vote for the Democratic nominee and they should vote for him,” said Garrett Epps, the Hollis professor of law at the University of Oregon School of Law.
A vigorous Democratic effort to oust Smith could make that case much harder, but since popular Rep. Peter DeFazio (D) decided not to enter the race, the prospects for a Democratic victory are dim, Epps predicted. Most party leaders are now promoting state Speaker Jeff Merkley in the Senate race, though Steve Novick, an attorney and party activist, also is seeking the nomination.
Convincing undecided Democrats to vote for him is a curious tack to have to take for Frohnmayer, whose name long has been associated with the Republican Party, the result of his service in the first Bush administration and of a failed gubernatorial bid by his brother, Dave Frohnmayer (R), current president of the University of Oregon and former state attorney general.
“A lot of people think he’s his brother,” said Bill Lunch, chairman of the political science department at Oregon State University. “He would need to spend at least a million dollars to introduce himself, and I don’t think he has that kind of money. Then … for a serious campaign, he would need to raise $2.5, 3 million to be more comfortable.”
If the Democrats put on a lackluster show and Frohnmayer is sidelined, Smith may have an easier time navigating the the Beaver State’s huge contingent of unaffiliated constituents, who comprise more than a fifth of registered voters. He also may find it easier to sway the significant number of Republican and Democratic voters who are far from loyal to their parties.
“You have a large number of people in Oregon who jump from candidate to candidate or party to party depending on the election and depending on the candidates,” said Tim Hibbits, a partner in the Portland-based opinion research firm Davis, Hibbits & Midghall, Inc. “Some people who are registered independents are ideological, but I don’t think many of these folks are. They’ll just go for a candidate that appeals to them.”
Lately Smith appears to be less and less appealing, if independent public polls are to be believed. His approval ratings have dropped 10 points since January, and the number of voters who disapprove of his job performance has climbed from 30 percent to 45 percent.
Although some of his job ratings can be tied to President Bush’s falling poll numbers — and the increasing unpopularity of the Iraq War — Oregon has trended Democratic in recent elections, even though the number of enrolled Democrats and Republicans in the state roughly is even.
After losing a special election to now-Sen. Ron Wyden (D) — who remains personally close to Smith — Smith just barely won election in 1996 but won a more robust victory when he sought a second term in 2002, a good year for Republicans.
Democratic analysts say Frohnmayer’s Republican family ties leave only Republicans as the base from which he can draw support. But if Frohnmayer tries to take votes from Smith or right-leaning independents, he may turn them off with one of his primary platform planks: the impeachment of Bush.
Conversely, if he promotes that point or fights to identify himself as more left- leaning than his name suggests, he may isolate other Republican voters.
Frohnmayer says he’s not worried.
“If my campaign stands for anything, it’s going to be that I’m going to tell the truth,” he said. “I’m not going to calculate whether this helps me or hurts me.”
Frohnmayer is a former Democrat and a former Republican, most notorious for being asked to resign from the NEA by the elder Bush in 1992 over his support for controversial artwork.
“He comes out of what three or four decades ago was the liberal wing of the Democratic Party,” Hibbits said. “That was the dominant wing of the Republican Party in this state for quite some time.”
Smith has walked a similar line while in office. Despite a voting record overwhelmingly in line with the president, he has voted differently on a select number of issues, including gay rights, the environment and mass-transit funding, taking more liberal stances that Hibbits said will serve him well with left-leaning voters.
“Smith has worked hard to distance himself [from Bush] and I think he’s been successful,” he said.