Oregon will once again take the national political spotlight this fall as the Democratic party tries to expand its Congressional majorities by targeting Sen. Gordon Smith.
National groups on both sides of the political spectrum will likely spend millions of dollars on the race where Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley will challenge Smith, the two term incumbent, political observers say.
The Democratic Party is looking to pick up enough seats to be within range to break a filibuster - an attempt to indefinitely extend a debate and prevent a vote from occurring - which takes 60 votes. Democrats and Republicans currently hold 49 seats each in the U.S. Senate. Two independent senators caucus with the Democrats, giving them a meager majority of 51 votes to 49.
Assistant political science professor Keith Smith said a gain of three Democratic senators would provide the party with a comfortable majority because there will always be a few moderate Republicans willing to break with their party to allow a vote to take place.
Oregon is on a short list of states that will garner national attention, Smith said, along with Virginia, where the state's popular former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner is currently leading Republican Jim Gilmore in recent polls.
"It definitely matters when Republicans' primary course of action is to block legislation at every turn," Hannah August, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said.
During the Democratic primary, supporters of candidate Steve Novick pointed to the support Merkley received from the DSCC as giving Merkley an unfair advantage.
"(The DSCC was) very involved in the nomination because they wanted to have what they saw as a strong candidate in the general election," Smith said.
"The problem is that most political observers expected Merkley to run away with the nomination. The fact that Merkley didn't has led to questions about him as a campaigner," Smith said. "But there's still time before the general election."
Merkley's campaign - and the DSCC - portray Sen. Smith as someone who votes with the Bush administration too often to represent an increasingly Democratic state. Smith votes with Bush "90 percent of the time" the Merkley campaign says, and he is funded by drug and timber companies.
Matt Canter, Merkley's spokesman, said Merkley will raise enough money to compete with Smith, but not enough to compete dollar for dollar.
"Gordon Smith's friends are just wealthy. He's lived his entire life surrounded by wealthy special interests," Canter said.
RC Hammond, a spokesman for Sen. Smith, said Smith has been an independent voice in Washington who has broken with his party on issues such as stem cell research.
"Oregon will have a significant spotlight on it from outside groups, but at the end of the day Oregonians know Sen. Smith is an independent leader and that's why they will re-elect him," Hammond said.
Sen. Smith currently has more than $9 million dollars on hand compared with Merkley's $1.8 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. However, the DSCC currently has more than $37 million on hand, while the Republican counterpart has just over $19 million, according to data from the Federal Election Commission.
"What this race is really about is money," independent candidate John Frohnmayer said. "I don't see why it should be an auction."
Frohnmayer, a former Republican and former Democrat, said his candidacy will appeal to both Democrats who want change in a Congress that did not end the war in Iraq or hold impeachment hearings against President George Bush, and Republicans who traditionaly don't favor domestic wiretapping or torture.
"If you're a Hatfield Republican or a McCall Republican you're going to vote for me," he said. "There's only one political party in Washington, and that's the party of money."