Wyden Looks Safe, but Democratic Rift Is Real

by Nathan L. Gonzales April 13, 2015 · 9:39 AM EDT

Liberal groups have targeted Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden for defeat in next year’s elections unless he sides with them on upcoming trade deals. But any talk about the four-term Democrat’s vulnerability is premature until there is a challenger.

“Secretive Trade Deal Could Pose Problems At Home For Ron Wyden,” a rather alarming Huffington Post headline declared in February. The corresponding story appears to be based on a poll paid for by Democracy for America and a press release circulated to create doubt about the senator’s re-election bid. But the structure of the survey unfortunately doesn’t measure Wyden’s vulnerability.

Fifty percent of Oregon voters said they were less likely to vote for Wyden if he “voted with Republicans in favor of fast-track authority and the TPP,” while 21 percent were more likely, according to the Feb. 16-17 automated survey by Public Policy Polling.

Ideally, the survey would have started with a ballot test, where respondents would have been able to make a choice between Wyden and a named alternative. Instead, the vote question was asked after a series of questions (and DFA-provided information) about trade deals.

According to the poll, 63 percent of Oregon voters had an unfavorable view of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, 73 percent opposed fast-track authority, and 61 percent said free-trade agreements cost the country jobs. But there is no information about how much respondents knew about the issues or how they might prioritize trade when, or if, they vote.

Wyden’s positioning on the two key trade issues has garnered plenty of attention in recent weeks, including an in-depth New York Times piece. And on Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal spent more than 1,000 words chronicling the anti-Wyden effort on the ground in Oregon.

According to a March story in The Hill, liberal groups are now threatening to back a primary challenger to Wyden, but who that would be remains a mystery. DFA offered Rep. Peter A. DeFazio as an initial alternative, but the congressman has denied any interest.

And there doesn’t appear to be a rival on the horizon. Ambitious Democrats seem more likely to challenge new Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, who ascended to office when Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned, instead of taking on the four-term senator.

That’s not to say Senate primaries in Oregon are unprecedented. In 2008, anti-establishment attorney Steve Novick fought then-state Speaker Jeff Merkley to the very end of the Democratic primary. Merkley had the Democratic establishment locked up and financial superiority and squeaked out a 45 percent to 42 percent victory. But Merkley wasn’t an incumbent and entered the race with low statewide name identification.

Until there is a credible challenger, any talk about Wyden losing a primary should be dismissed. In its release, DFA boasted 24,892 members in Oregon, but that is likely to be a small fraction of the electorate. That would have been 4.5 percent of the competitive Democratic Senate primary electorate in 2008, and 1.4 percent of general election voters that same year.

The initial Huffington Post piece suggested “Republicans are considered very competitive in the state” and Wyden may be vulnerable in a general election. That’s quite a claim for a party currently shut out of all seven statewide offices and that hasn’t won a Senate race since 2002.

Another recent Huffington Post article suggested Wyden’s general election race could become complicated if the Working Families Party drafts its own candidate and siphons votes from the senator. Even that’s a stretch. In 2010, WFP nominee Bruce Cronk received 1.3 percent of the vote, and Wyden won re-election, 57 percent to 39 percent, over Republican Jim Huffman in the face of a great Republican year nationwide.

This isn’t the first time Wyden has been at odds with his party’s base. Some of his past health care proposals and stances on the environment have stirred liberal criticism. But that’s a long way from him being defeated for re-election.

For now, the anti-Wyden effort looks like saber-rattling by progressive groups. A week before the Oregon push, MoveOn.org publicized a survey showing that after hearing nearly a dozen nice quotes from and about Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, early primary and caucus-goers wanted her to run for president.

While a Warren challenge to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the presidential race isn’t likely at this point, and a primary challenge to Wyden is unlikely to materialize, there actually is stirring of a rift on the Democratic side between the populist wing and a wing that is viewed as too close to Wall Street. Republican primaries receive virtually all of the attention now, but we may not be far from some serious Democratic primaries, particularly if the party loses the White House next year.

The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report rates the Oregon Senate race as Safe Democrat.