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Memo to Merkley: Be Careful How You Criticize Sen. Smith

The newspaper headlines could well read “Democrat Merkley Blasts Feinstein, Dorgan and Johnson,” or possibly “Democrat Attacks Leading Democrats.” [IMGCAP(1)]

That’s because Oregon Senate candidate Jeff Merkley (D) apparently was more concerned with scoring political points than thinking through the circumstances when he attacked incumbent GOP Sen. Gordon Smith’s vote to confirm Court of Appeals nominee Leslie Southwick.

Merkley, the Speaker of the Oregon House and Smith’s likely Democratic opponent (attorney/activist Steve Novick also is seeking the Democratic nomination), distributed a news release shortly after Southwick’s confirmation blasting the Republican Senator’s vote for confirmation.

“Gordon Smith showed his true allegiance to George Bush’s far right agenda today. Smith had a chance to take a stand for fair treatment of all Americans. Instead, he stood up for the kind of divisive politics that is tearing America apart,” Merkley said in the Oct. 24 release.

The only problem is that nine Democratic Senators also voted to confirm Southwick, including the chairman of the party’s Senate Policy Committee, North Dakota’s Byron Dorgan. Dorgan, no doubt, would be surprised to learn that he too was voting for the president’s “far right agenda” by casting a vote to confirm Southwick.

I can’t wait to see Merkley tell California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, South Dakota’s Tim Johnson, North Dakota’s Kent Conrad and West Virginia’s Robert Byrd, the President Pro Tem, that in casting their votes to confirm Southwick, those veteran Democratic Senators “stood up for the kind of divisive politics that is tearing America apart.”

Imagine what it will be like when Merkley, who was 2 years old when Byrd was first elected to the Senate, strolls up to the West Virginia Democrat and criticizes him for voting to confirm a judge “who sees no serious problem with racial slurs against employees and who puts his narrow-minded values ahead of providing a nurturing home for children.” Byrd certainly will take that criticism good-naturedly.

Merkley is a serious threat to Smith given the national political environment and the damage that the Republican brand has experienced during the Bush presidency. But the Senate challenger isn’t helping himself with a campaign filled with overheated rhetoric.

Smith, 55, is a likable, low-key Senator who isn’t as easy to classify as the Merkley news releases suggest.

While he started off supporting the Bush policy in Iraq, Smith was one of the first Senate Republicans to break publicly with the president, taking to the Senate floor in December to say, “I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way, being blown up by the same bombs day after day. That is absurd. It may even be criminal.” Not surprisingly, Smith supported Democratic efforts to set a date by which U.S. forces would be withdrawn from Iraq.

While he supported a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage and is undeniably an opponent of abortion rights, Smith has been an outspoken supporter of hate crimes legislation that includes attacks against gays, and he supported expanded federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research.

And while Smith sided with his GOP colleagues and against most Democrats to cut off a filibuster preventing a final vote on allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, he opposed most of his Republican colleagues and voted with 38 Democrats in favor of a bill overhauling the nation’s immigration policy and establishing a guest- worker program.

Obviously, Smith has a lengthy record in politics, first in the Oregon Senate and then, during the past decade, in the United States Senate. That record will give Merkley plenty of ammunition, and the Democrat will likely have the resources to deliver an impressive barrage against Smith. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will be sure of that.

Merkley is helped by the fact that Oregon has leaned Democratic of late. The Democratic presidential nominee has won the past five races, and Democrats represent four of the state’s five House seats. Democrats also control both chambers of the Oregon Legislature.

But Oregon isn’t as liberal as some assume. The GOP controlled the state House in Oregon before the 2006 elections, and even now the Democratic majority in that chamber is a reed-thin 31-29. And though George W. Bush lost the state in each of his White House runs, Al Gore carried Oregon by only 6,765 votes in 2000, and John Kerry won it by only 4 points in 2004.

Recent polling by SurveyUSA, which conducts automated polls but appears to have a track record no worse than many traditional surveys, shows the problem that Merkley faces in the race.

An October SurveyUSA statewide survey found Bush’s job approval at 35 percent (compared with 63 percent disapproving), while Smith’s job approval was at a considerably higher 49 percent (with 42 percent disapproving). Oregonians, unlike voters in some other states, are distinguishing between the two Republicans, a good sign for the Senator.

Interestingly, Smith’s job approval among Republicans and Democrats was almost identical, at around 50 percent, as was his disapproval (at around 40 percent for both). He appears to have found the single best niche for an Oregon Republican — his best job approval ratings are among moderates (57 percent), not among conservatives (50 percent).

Merkley must redefine Smith in the eyes of Oregon voters if the challenger is going to remain one of national Democrats’ best hopes of beating a GOP incumbent. But the Democrat must be careful not to appear too negative in a state where voters are sensitive to too much negativity.

Yes, Gordon Smith is likely to be vulnerable because of the national environment. Yes, his re-election is very much in doubt. But if Jeff Merkley isn’t careful, he could turn out to be another Bill Bradbury (D) — an over-hyped, overly negative challenger whose bark is much worse than his bite.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.