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Eugene Weekly : Cover Story : 9.18.08

 

Merkley vs. Smith

Will Democratic surge topple Republican Senator?

By Alan Pittman

Democrat Jeff Merkley, a sawmill worker’s son turned Oregon House speaker, has U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, the last Republican senator on the West Coast and last statewide Republican in Oregon, fighting like a cornered animal.

Jeff Merkley speaks to a group at Tsunami Books in Eugene. Photo by Todd Cooper

Recent polls show the two neck and neck with Merkley ahead 43 to 41 percent. But Smith is slashing back with millions in biting negative ads and an effort to recast his image as less of a Bush and Iraq War stooge.

Here’s a look at the horse race, cash, flip flops and attacks along with undocumented immigrants, war, the economy and other issues in a key race that could decide whether Democrats retain their slim majority in the U.S. Senate.

 

Horse Race

As late as June, polls showed Smith with an almost 10 percentage point lead over Merkley. 

Tapping into his personal wealth from an inherited frozen food factory near Pendleton and big donations from timber barons and corporate interests, Smith has proved hard for Democrats to beat in the past. In 1996, he beat Democratic software magnate Tom Bruggere, who came close to matching Smith’s spending but lost by four points. In 2002, Smith trounced Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury after outspending the Democrat more than three to one.

This year looks different. Unpopular wars and a worsening economic crisis have left two-thirds of Oregon voters disapproving of Smith’s party leader, President George W. Bush.

Barack Obama holds a 10 percentage point lead in Oregon polls. With the Obama mania, Oregon Democrats have tripled their registration edge over Republicans in the last year, from 4 percent more Democrats to 13 percent more.

But getting all those newly registered voters to fill out the entire ballot and recognize Merkley’s name may be a challenge. In the May primary, 91,000 Oregon Democrats voted in the presidential race but didn’t vote in the Senate primary. 

 

Cash

While Merkley may hold the voter registration edge, Smith may trump that with cash. Through June 30, Smith had reported raising more than three times as much money as Merkley, $10.2 million versus $2.8 million. 

With such a big money disadvantage, the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee could be key to Merkley’s success. The DSCC has raised a $100 million war chest to buy independent ads and campaign work to secure and expand the slim Democratic Senate majority. 

The DSCC has reportedly bought almost $1 million of ads in Oregon, but its unclear if they’ve made Merkley a top priority. In April DSCC Chairman Sen. Chuck Schumer said five Senate races were his top targets while the Oregon race fell into a second tier, MSNBC reported. It’s unclear if recently narrowed polls have changed that prioritization.

Of course, the closer race could cause the Republican NRSC (the DSCC counterpart with a $63-million war chest) to also target the race. 

 

Flip Flops

Facing the political fight of his life, Smith has sought a makeover to the political left. Smith has recently changed his positions leftward on a host of issues including the Iraq War, global warming, health care and abortion (see below).

In the 2003-04 session, Smith voted 94 percent of the time with Bush and his Republican party, but now he votes 72 percent with Bush, according to the Washington Post.

Smith skipped the recent Republican National Convention and ran an ad cozying up to Obama, who has endorsed Merkley. That’s a big change from four years ago when Smith campaigned alongside Bush. Bush praised his “friend” the “great Gordon Smith,” and Smith lauded the “magic” of “how well this president connects to regular folks.”

Merkley says the Smith makeover is political posturing in the face of a tough election. Many Republicans apparently share the view. Gail Atteberry, who heads Oregon Right to Life, told the Associated Press that she isn’t worried about the abortion shift, “We know it is posturing.” 

Smith has had past success in being a political chameleon around election time. After pundits blamed the loss of Smith’s first run for Senate on the endorsement of the anti-gay Oregon Citizens Alliance, Smith rejected the OCA endorsement and won his second try.

Smith blasted Democrat Ron Wyden with attack ads in his first failed attempt. But after winning election, he performed a “buddy act” of mutually beneficial displays of bipartisanship with Sen. Wyden, The Oregonian’s Jeff Mapes reported. 

 

Attacks

Besides the makeover, Smith is also carpet bombing Oregon with anti-Merkley attack ads.

A new Smith television ad this week implies Merkley somehow voted to allow a serial rapist out of jail. Merkley fired back with an ad calling the attack “sleazy” and “lies.” Merkley points out that new laws can’t be applied retroactively to the rapist and that he actually voted for extending the statute of limitations for sex crimes and for mandatory life sentences for rapists.

Another Smith attack ad accuses Merkley of voting for new furniture for the state Capitol building. Merkley pointed out that many state Republicans supported the bipartisan remodel. The DSCC shot back with an ad comparing Smith’s “ridiculous” and “desperate” attack to the billions Smith voted to waste on Iraq and tax breaks for big oil. 

There’s been less emphasis on ads touting the two candidates’ contrasting life stories.

Merkley rose from a mill worker family to earn a scholarship at Stanford University. He worked as a national security analyst for the Pentagon and Congress in Washington, D.C., before returning to Oregon to work for Habitat for Humanity. After playing a key role in helping state Democrats retake the House of Representatives, Merkley was voted House speaker. He touts cutting taxes on working families, ethics reform and a rainy day fund for schools as his key accomplishments.

Smith was born into the wealth of his family’s frozen food business near Pendleton and was first elected to the state Senate. He grew up in the D.C. suburbs when his father served in the Eisenhower administration. A Mormon, Smith went to Brigham Young University before law school and taking over the family frozen food business.

 

Undocumented Workers

Smith Frozen Foods has long been criticized for allegedly hiring undocumented workers. 

In 1986 an INS investigative report described the Smith Frozen Foods workforce as “mostly illegal.” In 1988 the INS reported that the Smith plant appeared “staged” for an inspection and that in another visit three apparent undocumented workers ran out “almost knocking down [one officer] in their quick exit.” The INS quoted a Smith manager saying that a company lawyer had told them “not to copy documents so that it would make it harder for the INS to find errors.”

In 1995 arrest records indicated that two Smith workers were referred to the INS for deportation. 

This month, Willamette Week visited the factory and reported that dozens of interviews and documents provide “ample evidence to suggest that the hiring of illegal workers is a regular fact of life at Smith’s operation.”

The Smith campaign denied the alle-gations and called WW a partisan “tabloid weekly rag.” In 2005 WW won a Pulitzer Prize for revealing Neil Goldschmidt’s sexual abuse of a 14-year-old girl, a story that rocked the state’s Democratic establishment.

Jack Roberts, the former Republican state Labor Commissioner, said he doesn’t doubt that some of Smith’s frozen food workers are illegal. “I would be shocked, knowing what I know about the agriculture industry, if he didn’t have illegals,” Roberts said. “Everybody does.”

Roberts said he doubts the issue will have much of an impact on the race. It didn’t when Eugene Weekly and The Register-Guard first reported on the illegal worker evidence in 1996. That year the R-G buried the story in its inside pages, and this year The Oregonian did the same.

Democrats, some of whom have themselves hired undocumented workers for housework and who want Latino rights and votes, have shied away from the immigration issue. 

But immigration has become a hot issue with the Republican right wing, and Smith may face attacks as hypocritical. Smith told Project Vote Smart that he opposes amnesty or a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and wants “harsher financial punishments for those who knowingly employ illegal immigrants.” 

 

Iraq

Of course, polls, fundraising, ads and immigrants aren’t the top issues voters are concerned about. Here’s a look at what is.

In 2006 with Iraq an expensive and deadly disaster and Democrats unseating Republicans over the war, Smith switched his position. For four years Smith had been a strong supporter of Bush’s invasion, voting over and over for the president on the war. But in 2006 Smith announced that continuing the war was “absurd” and “may even be criminal.”

Smith now says he wants to bring the troops home, but he offers few specifics. Smith has opposed Democratic measures supporting a troop withdrawal and last year had a 36 percent voting record from Peace Action West, up from 0 percent in 2002.

Merkley said he opposed the war from the start and backs Obama’s plan to remove all combat troops in six to 12 months with no permanent bases and American contractors replaced with Iraqis. Merkley dismisses Smith’s switch as political “opportunism” to save his seat.

The DSCC attacked Smith in an ad noting it took more than 1,000 days, 3,000 American lives and $300 billion before Smith changed his mind.

 

Economy

Both Merkley and Smith favor lower taxes. But Merkley says he would target his tax breaks to benefit the working class while Smith favors inheritance, capital gains and other tax breaks that would largely benefit the wealthy

“The Bush-Smith economic plan delivered more than $100 in tax cuts for millionaires for every single dollar received by working, middle-class families,” the Merkley campaign charges.

Smith himself is a multi-millionaire. According to federal disclosure reports, he’s worth up to $38 million. Smith reportedly has a mansion in the D.C. suburbs worth $3.5 million and paid $1.3 million for a set of four antique golf clubs.

Meanwhile, WW reports that the Latino factory workers, by whose work Smith made millions, earn little pay and benefits and complain of mistreatment. Smith has repeatedly voted against the minimum wage.

Merkley has won top voting records, endorsements and campaign contributions from labor groups. Smith’s AFL-CIO voting record was 44 percent in 2007 and 13 percent in 2006. 

Smith supports Bush’s free trade agree-ments. Merkley said they have resulted in thousands of jobs shipped overseas.

Smith ads have attacked Merkley for “44 votes” to “raise taxes.” The Oregonian found many of the votes were double counted and misleading. Using a similar methodology, the Merkley campaign counted 67 Smith votes for higher taxes on the middle class.



Environment

Merkley has a 96 percent lifetime voting record in the Legislature from the Oregon League of Conservation Voters.

In the U.S. Senate, Smith has a 32 percent lifetime rating from the national League of Conservation Voters.

Environmentalists have long faulted Smith for backing old-growth logging and clearcuts. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Smith is the second greatest recipient of timber industry donations in Congress, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions. 

Environmentalists have also attacked Smith for not protecting clean air and water. The Washington Post reported that Smith worked closely with Vice President Dick Cheney in 2002 to win votes by diverting more water to Klamath Basin farmers. The diversion resulted in a massive salmon die-off. 

This month Smith’s frozen food factory made headlines with a $3,900 water pollution fine. The Oregonian reported that Smith’s company has received six such fines since 1992, including a $25,000 fine for a spill that killed everything in a creek for 23 miles.

But in the last year, Smith has turned to the left on environmental issues. He backed some wilderness bills and a mandate to reduce global warming that he had long opposed and earned a 73 percent LCV voting record for 2007. 

The Merkley campaign calls the green shift just more election-year posturing. Environmentalists point out that in the 2002 election Smith said he opposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge but cast a key vote for it after he won.

 

Abortion/Gay Rights

Merkley has a 100 percent pro-choice voting record from NARAL. Smith’s rating has gone from 0 percent in 2004 to 40 percent in 2007.

Smith told Vote Smart he’s now against abortion except in cases of rape or incest or when a woman’s life is in danger. He opposes federal funding for abortions.

Merkley points to Smith’s past votes against late-term abortions where the mother’s health was at risk and against emergency contraceptives in cases of rape or incest and in support of overturning Roe v. Wade. 

Smith opposes gay marriage but supports civil unions and hate crime laws protecting gays. Merkley supports gay marriage and other gay rights. Basic Rights Oregon says Merkley “championed” the 2007 Oregon laws outlawing discrimination against LGBT people and providing civil unions for same-sex couples in Oregon.

 

Health Care

Both Merkley and Smith now support Sen. Wyden’s plan for using mandates, subsidies and private insurance companies to provide universal health care. 

Smith’s position is a recent switch condemned as more opportunism by Merkley. Merkley points to Smith’s votes against consumers and for drug and insurance companies and his hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from those companies. 

Of course, for these important issues to really matter in the key Senate race, voters will have to see beyond the fog of warring campaign ads on their televisions.