Ore. senator faces tricky path to re-election

National Democrats have made it plain that one of their top targets in the 2008 Senate election will be Oregon Republican Sen. Gordon Smith, who’s been reaching out more to moderate voters of late.

But Smith could also face potential trouble within his own party at home.

There are rumors that Smith might draw a primary challenge from the party’s right wing. A national group that promotes fiscal conservatism is making noises about possibly bankrolling such an effort.

A GOP primary challenge could force Smith — who’s broken with President Bush and the Republican Party on Iraq and other issues — to veer more to the right, which could harm his chances in a state that’s trending more blue.

At the same time, though, Smith has established a track record of running successfully as a Blue State Republican — and he said he’s confident Oregon voters will once again endorse his brand of “less partisan posturing and more problem solving.”

“I don’t who or how many opponents I will have,” Smith said in an interview this past week. “But I am ready to run a competitive and winning campaign. I’d hate to be my opponent.”

Smith is the lone Republican to hold statewide office in Oregon, and the only Republican U.S. senator serving the West Coast states.

He believes that his stand against the war in Iraq, and his positions in favor of raising cigarette taxes for children’s health insurance and protecting gays from hate crimes reflect his willingness to cross party lines to “solve problems.”

“I wasn’t sent to Washington to be an ideologue,” he said.

Democrats say Smith is reinventing himself politically in time for the re-election. They are hoping they can carry the momentum of last year’s election — in which they re-elected Gov. Ted Kulongoski and recaptured the Oregon House from Republicans — into 2008 by knocking off Smith.

However, a recent opinion survey by Portland pollster Mike Riley indicates that Smith has almost equal support among Republicans and Democrats, with 57 percent of Republicans and 54 percent of Democrats giving him a favorable job performance rating.

Smith’s high ratings among Democratic voters have been giving heartburn to Democrats, who’ve been trying to find a big-name Democrat willing to take him on.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee recently commissioned a poll showing that Democratic U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio would hold up well against Smith among Oregon voters.

DeFazio himself this past week said he’s now considering it bu that the national Democrats would have to step in with big-time help to raise the millions of dollars such a challenge would require.

Smith’s campaign this past week announced that it already has $2.75 million in campaign cash on hand, and the senator himself said he was confident he could raise $10 million for his re-election.

DeFazio said he believes Smith is vulnerable as a “flip-flopper.” He noted that Smith had voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq and supported President Bush’s Iraq policy until last December, when he spoke against it.

“What stripes is he wearing today? Is he the right-wing Bush backer, or the newly converted advocate for ending the war in Iraq?” the Democratic congressman said. “That’s a real vulnerability for me or somebody else to go after.”

While Smith’s stand against the Iraq war apparently has gained him support among moderate voters, it has alienated some in his Republican base of voters.

Keizer resident Tom Larimer said Smith has been “pandering to the left” by denouncing Bush’s Iraq policies and opposing oil drilling in an Alaska wildlife refuge.

“Without question, I would consider supporting another candidate. I’m hoping that he runs opposed” in the May 2008 Republican primary, Larimer said.

Smith could face opposition from the Club for Growth, a Washington, D.C.-based fiscal watchdog group that spent more than $1 million in 2006 to help defeat another prominent Republican moderate, Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chaffee.

David Keating, executive director of Club for Growth, said the group doesn’t think Smith has done enough to control federal spending.

For that reason, Keating said “it’s possible” the group might financially back a GOP challenger to Smith — although he notes that no such candidate has emerged yet.

Anti-tax activist Bill Sizemore, who was trounced when he ran against then-Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber in 1998, said recently that he’s giving thought to possibly taking on Smith.

However, the head of Oregon’s leading anti-tax group said this past week he doubts that Sizemore or any other Republican will challenge Smith for the Republican senatorial nomination.

“It would be a suicide mission,” said Russ Walker, executive director of the Oregon chapter of FreedomWorks. “I just don’t see anybody who’s prepared to challenge Gordon Smith, or anybody who really wants to.”

Riley, the Portland pollster who recently did the survey on Smith’s job approval ratings, said the fact that 27 percent of Republicans had an unfavorable view of Smith shows that he has alienated some GOP voters with his comments on Iraq and other issues.

Still, Riley said he doubted that GOP voters in any appreciable numbers would abandon the party’s lone statewide officeholder.

“Even Republicans who might not be fully on board with Gordon might recognize that he is the only thing that stands between them and a West Coast that’s entirely Democratic” among U.S. senators, Riley said.