Oregon Senate: Will Democrats in Oregon Go Quirky or Traditional?

by Stuart Rothenberg May 8, 2008 · 12:05 AM EDT

Two weeks from tomorrow, we’ll know whether Oregon Democrats have nominated Jeff Merkley or Steve Novick to take on incumbent Gordon Smith (R) in the Senate race. The primary, with anti-war candidate Candy Neville a wild card, has been far more entertaining — and much more competitive — than most observers initially assumed.

Voting actually begins in the Beaver State immediately, since mail ballots are in the process of being sent out to registered voters.

Democratic consultant Novick, who was born without a left hand and uses a hook, has run the kind of quirky campaign he promised, badgering his opponent in press releases and airing offbeat ads that play up the fact that he is not just another politician.

When he began his bid for the Democratic nomination, Novick acknowledged that he would pattern his campaign after previous efforts by now-Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone (D). Early on, he even promised that his campaign would be “the Wellstone campaign on steroids.” He’s certainly done that, including using Feingold’s media consultant.

Feingold and Wellstone began as long shots and presented themselves as political outsiders and reformers, emphasizing that they wanted to change Washington, D.C. So has Novick.

And Feingold and Wellstone relied on off beat television ads to deliver their messages of change. One Novick ad shows him opening a beer bottle with his hook, while another starts out as a stereotypical ad — until he pulls an oversized plug on it and says, “Sorry, but I refuse to run the same old ads as ordinary politicians.”

While Novick has some institutional support — former Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) and former Rep. Les AuCoin (D) have endorsed him, as has the Oregon Education Association — Merkley, the Speaker of Oregon’s House, is widely viewed as the establishment candidate.

Merkley’s endorsements include Gov. Ted Kulongoski and former Gov. Barbara Roberts, Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers, state Treasurer Randall Edwards and Oregon Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Castillo, as well as the mayors of Portland, Eugene, Corvallis and Bend.

The leaders of the state Senate and House have also endorsed their colleague Merkley, as have much of organized labor, the Sierra Club and the Humane Society. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is officially neutral in the primary, helped recruit Merkley into the Senate race and is widely seen as preferring the Oregon Speaker.

Perhaps the most surprising endorsement in the primary has come from The Oregonian, the biggest newspaper in the state, which endorsed Novick last week, calling him “a bold choice for Democrats” and “an unusual man with an unusual résumé.”

Merkley has a considerable financial advantage, but it isn’t overwhelming. Through the end of March, he had raised just over $1.3 million to Novick’s just under $900,000. Merkley ended the quarter with $473,000 in the bank, while Novick had $197,000.

Observers note that with only a couple of weeks left in the contest, neither man has pulled ahead (more than one poll shows a statistical dead heat), but Merkley is out-buying Novick on TV, which could have an impact on the Democratic horse race. It’s unclear who will benefit from the expected big primary turnout fueled by the presidential race.

Novick has proved to be a more resilient and appealing candidate than some assumed. Even if his greatest appeal is with journalists, political consultants and Portland liberals, he has, so far at least, given Merkley more than the Oregon Speaker wanted.

In the campaign’s final days, the question is whether Novick can broaden his appeal and convince state voters that he really has something to contribute in the Senate, or whether he’s more interested in the electoral process.

While Novick has an interesting story to tell — he graduated from college at the age of 18 and from Harvard Law School at 21, worked for the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., and for Oregon’s Senate Democrats, was policy director for Kulongoski and worked actively on state ballot measures — he often seems more interested in shocking or amusing rather than impressing.

Merkley lacks Novick’s pizzazz, but he appears more substantive and serious (and, yes, less engaging) than the consultant. He holds a master’s in public policy from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, was a presidential management fellow who worked in the Department of Defense on nuclear forces issues, worked at the Congressional Budget Office, worked for Habitat for Humanity and spent seven years as president of the World Affairs Council of Oregon.

Both Merkley and Novick have predictably liberal records and agendas, and each attacks Smith for being too conservative and for “canceling out” the vote of the state’s other Senator, Democrat Ron Wyden.

But Democratic observers worry about Novick as a general election candidate. They fret about his appeal to swing voters and moderates and fear voters will tire of what they regard as his gimmicky campaign.

An upset win by Novick could catapult him into the general election with just the momentum he needs. Or it could convince some voters and Democratic contributors that defeating Smith is a pipe dream.