Four Keys to Defeating Gordon Smith in 2008

Jon Isaacs

[Editor's note: Today, Jon Isaacs joins BlueOregon as a regular contributor. In 2006, Jon led the Oregon House Democrats to their first majority in 16 years. Now, he's the vice president of the Compass Media Group, a political consulting firm.]

Gordon Smith should be defeated in 2008.

Despite what the editorial board of Oregon's largest newspaper goes out of its way to persuade Oregonians to believe, Gordon Smith is a far right Republican with a clear record of supporting the George Bush agenda close to 100% of the time.

Many great BlueOregon posts have been made recently outlining Smith's record - most recently and notably by Steve Novick. I will leave the job of dissecting and exposing Smith's real record to others, but the point is that there is a treasure trove of material for the Democratic challenger to run on. Gordon Smith should be defeated in 2008.

The one thing I will give Gordon Smith is that he is a very skilled politician. He has run some of the best and most ruthless campaigns Oregon has ever seen. Will anyone ever forget the ads with the tag line "Ron Wyden – A Desperate Politician Oregonians Can't Trust?" or the ferocious attacks on Bill Bradbury in 2002? I'm sure he's assuming he can just pull off the same election-year conversions he did last time around and cruise to re-election through a well-run, well-funded campaign.

In my view, there are four keys to defeating Gordon Smith in 2008:

1. We don't necessarily need a "big name", but we absolutely need a candidate in the race early.

In 2001, we all waited and waited to find out if John Kitzhaber would run against Smith while every other potential candidate deferred to him. Kitzhaber didn't make up his mind until after Labor Day when he announced that we not running. As a result, Bill Bradbury didn't have a campaign up and running until the middle of October. According the latest FEC filings, Gordon Smith has over $2 million cash on hand. By the end of the first quarter of 2007 expect Smith to have over $2.5 million. We can't expect a challenger to raise the funds necessary to defeat Smith if they can't get started raising money until the end of this year. We need our "big names" to announce their intentions early in order to give our eventual candidate(s) the opportunity to build a strong campaign – primarily the time to fundraise.

2. This campaign is first and foremost about Gordon Smith. We need a candidate who will aggressively criticize Smith's record first and talk about themselves second.

Wimps need not apply. We need a candidate who is prepared to run a tough campaign that galvanizes popular opposition to Smith's record. This is also another reason #1 is so important. If we have an announced challenger in early 2007, it will be much more difficult for Smith to pull off some of his patented switcheroos where he suddenly reverses course and votes with the Democrats on several issues (all of which will be lauded as gigantic acts of courage by the editorial board of Oregon's largest newspaper). This will also take the funds necessary to communicate Smith's record effectively to voters. Also remember, Smith's primary campaign tactic is go negative early and often. We need a candidate who can take the hits and keep his/her campaign on track.

3. Progressive advocacy groups need to get behind the Democratic challenger early.

In 2002, several key partners in the progressive coalition held out their support for Bradbury in order to get a vote or votes from Smith – most of which he gladly delivered. What's done is done, but this should not be acceptable in 2008 and we should point out when and who is using our candidate as a bargaining chip.

4. The Democratic candidate must engage the netroots.

I believe the 2008 Oregon US Senate race is could become the top netroots campaign in the nation. Our own BlueOregon, Loaded Orygun, and the other great progressive blogs in Oregon can and should be in right in the middle of it. The people-powered grassroots campaigns advocated by the netroots are ideal in Oregon. Just look at the most notable Democratic victories in Oregon over the past two election cycles and you will notice the one constant is that they all put a high value on grassroots organizing. Yet since the emergence of the netroots as a real political force, we haven't had a high profile federal race in Oregon that engages the national netroots community. This is the time for it to happen. Our candidate must understand the opportunity for their campaign and take the steps necessary to get the netroots invested in their campaign.

  • LT (unverified)

    One more thing: the role of the DSCC.

    Most remember the Paul Hackett story, and as I recall there were people thinking of a primary challenge to Webb or Bob Casey before the DSCC joined in.

    The argument can be made that DSCC has only learned some (not all) of the lessons of the 1996 "Kerrey Millionaire" attempt to have DSCC choose candidates that then the locals are pressured to support. I believe that is one reason Gordon got elected in the first place.

    While the 4 keys are important, there are going to be people who will want to wait and see about the DSCC role having been involved in previous Senate primaries.

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    I know he's having too much fun in his current job, but what about Randy Leonard for Senate? It'd sure be interesting to see someone with his feistiness in the Senate rather than Gordon Smith (or even Ron Wyden). Not to mention the somewhat different background than Smith.

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    I'm with you on everything except part of #2--it may need to be in part about Smith, but if the candidate doesn't have his/her own message--and a strong one--this will be a losing campaign. Being tough is good. But balance it with real solutions (which is itself and indictment of Smith and the GOP).

  • BlueNote (unverified)

    "We need a candidate who will aggressively criticize Smith's record first and talk about themselves second."

    With all due respect to the political expertise of the author, I think the above quoted language is cynical BS.

    I am not interested in wasting my political contributions or my time or my vote on anyone who is not willing to campaign primarily on what he or she will do to solve the problems facing our country. Tell me what you will do to stop the war NOW, adopt universal single-payor health care, end childhood poverty, disease and malnutrition, and promote social and economic fairness for every man, woman and child regardless of race, creed, color, sexual orientation or country of origin. Tell me what you will do to end predatory mortgage lenders that are stealing the homes of the poor and the over-worked lower middle class. Tell me what you will do to fix Social Security and Medicare so that our retired citizens can spend the rest of their lives in reasonable circumstances.

    I am happy to see Democrats in every elected position, at least until the Greens or Socialists can organize better campaigns. However, I don't give a damn about Gordon Smith and his past record and if the only thing you have to talk about is how bad Gordo is or was, you can forget me and my money and my vote.

  • John (unverified)

    Why do Democrats need a candidate? What we're missing most of all is candidates. The more people talking about Smith's record, his almost total absence from Oregon for the past 5 years, the better. Also, with more candidates, voters might actually get to vote for one who will represent their interests, instead of having to rally around some hack selected by the DSCC or the Oregon Democratic Party. With a single candidate, we run the risk of repeating 2002, where Bradbury wouldn't even make a big deal of the fact that Smith was the Senate's third leading recipient of Enron largesse, inextricably linked to the PGE fiasco, a rope that any reasonably effective candidate would have hung around Smith's neck before running his horse off.

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    Also, with more candidates, voters might...

    We're having enough trouble coming up with ONE candidate, much less two, three, four or more. I'm all in favor of a robust primary campaign, but wow - we don't have a single candidate yet and four of the biggest names have already taken themselves out (Kitzhaber, DeFazio, Castillo, Gardner.)

  • Andrew Tunall (unverified)

    John and BlueMate,

    I believe the main reason we didn't effectively communicate Gordon Smith's shortcomings is the lack of criticism that was put forth by the campaign until the very end. Bradbury's campaign, which I worked very hard on in 2002, attempted to effectively communicate our vision for Oregonians, but fell short on identifying Smith as the far right politician he was. To be successful this time, the first priority has to be to open Oregonian's eyes to what Gordon Smith really is - a strongly partisan, far right, pro-Bush politician who is counter to the ideals of a majority of Oregonians.

    By first opening the eyes of the electorate, we can then effectively communicate our vision as Democrat. Getting a strong candidate with experience in Oregon politics establishes them as a real player in the race. We can't cede the middle ground to Gordon Smith. He has done that in the past, and the consequence is his re-election.


  • John (unverified)


    If you can't come up with candidates, I have to reason to continue registering as a Democrat, since I only do it to vote in the primary in the hope that someday like minded folks will carry the day, and I won't always have to vote for the lesser of two evils in November.

    It's high time for Democrats to firmly embrace campaign finance reform as a way of reducing the financial burden of running for office, which would open the way for more candidates less beholden to monied interests. Were that to happen, I'm certain I could find candidates I could enthusiastically support.

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    John -- We already have some pretty strict limits on campaign finance at the federal level. $2100. Hasn't seemed to have reduced the "financial burden" much. In fact, the harder we make it, the more of an advantage the independently wealthy candidate has.

    (This is going way off-topic, but you should note that the most liberal Democratic presidential nominee of the last 50 years - Gene McCarthy - received over 90% of his support from only four donors. The more we require people to get broad support, the more likely they are to moderate their views. A strong ideologue can find a half-dozen rich ideologues to finance their way.)

  • Gary (unverified)

    Voters first have to decide they don't like the current guy before they'll check out the new guy. That's why the primary objective of any Democratic candidate has to be the exposure of Smith as the fraudulent moderate he is. Only after Smith's favorability rating is shot will voters pay attention to how the new guy will be so much better. This isn't idealistic, but it certainly is realistic.

  • LT (unverified)

    Blue Note has a point. Ask yourselves if Jim Webb, John Tester, Bob Casey won solely because they weren't (respectively) Allen, Burns and Santorum.

    Could it be they won because "I'm tired of the incumbent and I like what the challenger has to say"?

    I suspect there are lots of people looking for someone to state the affirmative, even if it mentions the incumbent ("Unlike Gordon Smith, I will.....").

    The trick is capturing the swing voters: the folks who will vote for the guy they know who is running against Gordon, the folks who hear the candidate speak and are more impressed with the challenger than with the incumbent, the folks willing to say to a friend "that guy made sense when he said...".

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    "I'm tired of the incumbent and I like what the challenger has to say"

    Both parts of that statement have to be true. You have to fire the incumbent, and you have to hire the new guy.

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)

    Jon Isaacs:

    This campaign is first and foremost about Gordon Smith. We need a candidate who will aggressively criticize Smith's record first and talk about themselves second.

    Bob T:

    That's rarely the best way to go and can backfire. Many voters (including many Democrats, but certainly most non-affiliated ones) still have less patience for a candidate who spends all his time bashing his opponent, even if accurately, and little or no time on what he himself stands for.

    In 1960, John F. Kennedy knew that it would have been a mistake to trash Nixon since the latter was part of the outgoing administration that was still popular enough with many people, so instead he talked about how things were good but would be even better with a Kennedy rather than a Nixon administration. That fact that he won by a hair (and with dead people voting) may show that the Ike Admin was indeed a difficult target.

    As for Smith, it's possible that the make-up of the Oregon electorate at present may make it safe for a challenger to play the negative game all the way, but an easy and inevitable win by such a challenger are rarely signs of approval.

    Bob Tiernan

  • Chuck Butcher (unverified)

    It seems folks are taking a one or the other approach to campaigning against an incumbent, that seems shortsighted. An incumbent has a record and it is fodder, but that fodder needs to be balanced with, "... and when elected I will ..." You take from your opponent and give to yourself. It is important to remember that media is only going to give you bites if they give you squat.

    There's one idea I'd like to head off at the pass, the Democratic Party of Oregon is not going to select a Senatorial candidate for Oregon and if there's a Primary election they're not going to pick sides.

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    I like it. But a candidate will only attract national attention after she or he COMMANDS local netroots attention. That is the lesson of the Webb and Tester campaigns, along with others that made history in 2006. Who has one at least one significant elective office, rivets Oregonians in the blogosphere, and hasn't yet taken herself or himself out of the running or run before unsuccessfully?

    What about Kate Brown? I would be fanatically devoted to a Senate campaign by Kate Brown.

  • peter (unverified)

    we do not need a big name. oregon is a small enough state that an ambitious candidate with a progressive-populist message and the ability to connect with the grassroots would be just as good, if not better.

    look at the new d-senators class of 2006: amy klobuchar was the hennepin county attorney, claire mcCaskill was state auditor, jim webb was a former navy secretary, and so on. jon tester of montana was a state senator (who had been minority whip/minority leader/president of the senate) from a remote district, with--initially--a small base of support. he reached out to the grassroots, and importantly; the national netroots, for seed money, and was able to defeat the establishment choice in the primary, on his way to victory in the general.

    in oregon, jeff merkley has had a similar trajectory (in the house), and ben westlund is a senator who already has a solid base of grassroots support. these are just two obvious possibilities, someone more familiar with our state legislators could probably come up with more possibilities. the important point is that we have a candidate who is not afraid to fight running a strong grassroots campaign.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)

    1) There are a fairly substantial number of local leaders who long for the days when Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood used seniority to bring home the bacon. That was why Earl Blumenauer and Elizabeth Furse stepped in to save Mark Hatfield when it looked like he would lose in 1990.

    2) As a result you have to make the case for firing Smith. That is true for any candidate, if people are comfortable with the job Smith is doing they aren't going to roll the dice on an unknown quantity. But it is especially true with Senators where having seniority is a major advantage in being effective.

    3) The "flip-flop" argument is not going to work. If someone tries to run against Smith based on his having changed his mind on the war they are not going to win. There are too many voters whose own minds have changed. The attacks on Smith need to be focused on unpopular votes he made that he will not have the opportunity to reverse and those that he won't reverse over the next couple years (like his position on abortion rights).

    4) Unlike 2006, it is not going to be possible to tie Smith to the unpopular actions of his colleagues. The Republicans no longer control the Senate. So it is going to have to be Smith's record, not the Republicans', that takes him down.

    5) The candidate needs to be able to raise money. That should be obvious. It probably means that it needs to be someone already in public office who can deliver for contributors in that capacity, even if they lose the Senate race. Its unlikely any Democratic candidate is going to start out as the favorite against Smith.

    6) Expecting interest groups to abandon their own mission is unrealistic. They can, and should, take advantage of the election as leverage to win concessions from Smith. They aren't in the business of electing people, that's the candidates' job. Its up to the Democratic candidate to convince them that s/he can win and they should sacrifice that immediate opportunity for what s/he will deliver in the future.

    7) I am not a big fan of Randy Leonard. But he would be an interesting candidate. As a blue collar firefighter he might be able to win support in rural Oregon that the typical Portland liberal couldn't. If he could find an old firetruck to travel around the state in, he would attract kids, crowds and a lot of goodwill wherever he went. He also isn't likely to be shy about criticizing Smith. On the other hand, can he raise enough money? I doubt it. Unless the Portland business community wants to invest in getting him off the city council...

  • LT (unverified)

    Thank you Ross for mentioning the whole Democrats for Hatfield thing in 1990. That mailer with all the famous names not only alienated those campaigning for the 1990 Dem. nominee but still rankled (and was still being passed around ) 2 years later.

    For those of you keeping track of Gordon's last statements,

    has a video link to watch the remarks.

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)

    Ross Williams:

    There are a fairly substantial number of local leaders who long for the days when Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood used seniority to bring home the bacon. That was why Earl Blumenauer and Elizabeth Furse stepped in to save Mark Hatfield when it looked like he would lose in 1990.

    Bob T:

    That's exactly why pork and in fact all or most spending that is merely re-transfers back to states or local governments skews the system and is the major part of the incumbent protection plan. I know people who opposed Hatfield on nearly every issue, except for providing light rail pork, and he voted for Hatfield for that reason only. I'd prefer to see someone vote for someone who is more in line with his views (even if I'd hate to see that person win).

    What Hatfield and Packrat (and Bobby KKK Byrd and Stevens and most others) did or still do is not a policy stance so far as I'm concerned, since a computer program can divvy out the money w/o politics and chits and trade-voting and compromising photos entering into it. But the congresscritters want it the current way so that people like my former lefty co-worker will vote for someone just to get the money back to Oregon. As if the politician's campaign slogan is, "I'm for sending money back home".

    Without this warping of the representative system, people might actually vote for or against someone because of what their views on issues are !

    What a concept.

    Bob Tiernan

  • Ross Williams (unverified)

    What about Kate Brown? I would be fanatically devoted to a Senate campaign by Kate Brown.

    Kate would be a great Senator. Unfortunately her state senate seat is up in 2008. Which means she would have to abandon her leadership position to run. Without that position to fall back on, I doubt she can raise the money. I also doubt Kate is up for putting herself into the grinder of what would be a very nasty campaign. And she would have to do a lot of work in the next six months to position herself to win outside Portland.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)

    That mailer with all the famous names not only alienated those campaigning for the 1990 Dem. nominee but still rankled (and was still being passed around ) 2 years later.

    Maybe, but it did not prevent either Elizabeth or Earl from winning Democratic primaries and getting elected to congress. To be fair, Hatfield's opposition to the Vietnam War and support for a Nuclear Freeze played a role in their support for him. As did his help with getting that light rail line to Hillsboro. But there were a lot of people working behind the scenes to help him and most of that was defending the power of his seniority.

    My point was that ideology is important to a fairly narrow segment of voters and they usually aren't the ones that determine the outcome of an election.

  • John Mulvey (unverified)

    It seems to me the debate over whether to go negative against an opponent or stay positive about one's own agenda is something of a red herring. A successful attempt to beat an incumbent US Senator had better have elements of both.

    Why not take a page out of the Smith playbook? Create some independent groups, call them "Oregonians for Truth" (or something equally innocuous), and they can do the heavy lifting when it comes to educating the public on Gordo's crappy votes. They can be the ones constantly running ads with grainy images of Gordo and Bush superimposed over news headlines about Iraq, accompanied by eerie minor-key music. Then our candidate can play the "good cop" and pretend to be above politics.

    Too cynical?


  • Sadie (unverified)

    One reason Smith is so publicly coming out against the war right now is that he recognizes the ability of the Democrats to GOTV in Presidential election years. The last time he was up for re-election was in an off year, had it been in 2004 I think it would have been a much closer and tougher race for Smith. Our coordinated campaign efforts, with Carry Oregon, were so successful in 2004 that resources were pulled from OR before the end of the race. What we need to do is capitalize on that success and get people to vote for our candidates and our positions all the way down the ticket - just as we did in November of 2006.

    Sometimes you do that by giving us great candidates to vote for, as we did very well in Washington County this time around for our legislative seats. Sometimes you do it by energizing the base so strongly against the opposition, as we did for the Kerry/Edwards campaign in 2004. How great would it be if we could accomplish both tasks at the same time?

    I guess some people just have to be willing to take one for the team and not mind getting a loss. Why is it that we have no problem getting a primary race in the likely to win districts (as happened in the '06 throughout Multnomah County, and in Washington County's SD 17 Chase vs. Avakian, and HD 27 Bohan vs. Read), yet we have a very difficult time trying to get anyone to run in our likely to lose districts? The Democratic Party is very strong in OR, but until our potential candidates are willing to take a bigger gamble, we are going to have a hard time winning these must win races.

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    At the very, very minimum, we're talking about it sooner, and that's always good.

    But with all due respect, heeding Bob Tiernan on how to defeat Senator Gordon Smith is a little like asking Grand Moff Tarkin for advice on how to blow up the Death Star. Process accordingly.

    And good luck. I've wanted that weasel gone since the Sweater ad.

    'I would never ever vote to deny a woman's right to choose, golly gee whilickers!'

    <h2>Yeah, Gordon, but you've got no problem putting chumps like Roberts and Scalito on the Supremes to do just that, now, do ya?</h2>

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