The first sign that Oregon Senator Gordon Smith, once thought to be among the more secure of the Republicans seeking re-election this year, recognized he was in trouble came in June, when his campaign seemed to claim the endorsement of a colleague seeking the presidency. And it wasn’t John McCain, the candidate Smith had endorsed long before most other GOP leaders. A TV ad for Smith, who has cultivated a maverick image while voting with the Bush administration more than 90 percent of the time, began by asking, “Who says Gordon Smith helped lead the fight for better gas mileage and a cleaner environment?” After a dramatic pause came the answer–“Barack Obama”–along with images of Obama’s website and campaign materials.
Smith’s commercial was based on a false premise and an inaccurate reading of statements by Obama, who backs Democrat Jeff Merkley’s progressive populist challenge to the two-term Republican incumbent. If re-elected, Smith would almost certainly devote his energies to blocking the initiatives of an Obama administration. Merkley is opposed to the Iraq War, concerned about Bush administration threats to the Constitution and inclined toward the hometown side of the Main Street versus Wall Street calculus that is playing out in this period of turbulence. He was up early and hard with an ad bashing Smith’s backing of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s bailout bill. Like many of the best Senate challengers this year, Merkley stands a little to the left of Obama on trade policy and protecting civil liberties. And he’s precisely the sort of experienced battler–a state legislative leader with a background as a Pentagon analyst and Congressional aide–who could be a muscular player in a supersized Senate Democratic caucus.
Smith’s Obama-embracing ad highlighted the desperation of GOP senators who have recognized that McCain isn’t much help in their uphill battle just to maintain their weakened position in the chamber they lost control of in 2006. It also illustrates the complex dynamics at play in the thirty-five Senate races that will be decided November 4. With the authority to approve cabinet and judicial appointments, treaties and trade deals, as well as arcane rules that allow a minority to block major legislation, the Senate can make or break a presidency–especially one as ambitious as Obama’s most ardent backers see in the offing.
Like the House, where Democrats are well positioned to expand on their thirty-six-seat majority, the Senate will almost certainly be in Democratic hands come January. But the current 51-to-49 Democratic advantage is hardly sufficient to deliver on Obama’s promise of “change we can believe in.” And as the volatility of the presidential race–as well as aftershocks from the Wall Street meltdown and sudden shifts in Iraq and Afghanistan–dominates the media, it is difficult to pinpoint the extent to which Democrats will advance. There is no mystery, however, about the core question of the 2008 Congressional competition: will an election that favors Democratic Senate candidates more than any in recent decades (twenty-three Republican seats are up for election, many of them held by vulnerable incumbents, as opposed to just twelve by Democrats, all of whom are leading in the polls) provide the party with a sufficient majority to forge a new Washington consensus–a dramatic break from the crises, corruptions and compromises of the Bush/Cheney era?