Bates, Golden stir up political prognostication over Oregon's U.S. senate race

They are both Rogue Valley Democrats mulling whether they want a chance to run against U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., in 2008.

Save for the core Democratic values they share is where the similarities end between Alan Bates and Jeff Golden.

Since expressing his interest in the race, Bates, a 62-year-old Ashland osteopathic physician, has brandished his moderate credentials, touting, among other things, his win in the third state Senate District, the Ashland-Medford district where voter registration favors a Republican candidate over a Democrat.

Bates calls himself a "fiscal conservative," and is unapologetic for his liberal views on such social issues such as gay rights.

Should Bates decide to run, his challenge will be to beat back a portrayal by Republicans as an out of touch politician "from latte-drinking, Volvo-driving Ashland," Jackson County Democratic Central Committee Chair Paulie Brading said in an earlier interview.

Golden, longtime host of Jefferson Public Radio's weekday talk show "The Jefferson Exchange" until his political aspirations became public, is an unabashed progressive, those close to him said.

Known for both his keen intellect and unbridled ambition, Golden has yet to publicly articulate his positions or introduce himself to voters outside the Rogue Valley. However, those close to the 57-year-old Stanford University graduate said he would effectively challenge Smith on a range of issues, not the least of which would be what critics said is Smith's tepid position to the Iraq war.

Democrats frequently point to Smith's nationally noted December 2006 speech on the Senate floor in which he said that U.S. policy in Iraq "may even be criminal."

Prompting some critics to question his sincerity in opposing the war, just weeks later Smith declined to sign onto a bipartisan resolution to oppose President Bush's plan to increase troop levels in Iraq by 21,500.

Smith, of Pendleton, has a long history as a political maverick, bucking the GOP by supporting expanded federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, something that puts him at odds with the socially conservative arm of the Republican Party.

Smith also parted with most Republicans to support legislation to extend hate crimes to protect gays and lesbians, but falls back in GOP step by supporting the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would define constitutionally marriage as between one man and one woman.

Still, the Log Cabin Republicans, a national group of gay and lesbian Republicans, calls Smith one of their "strongest allies" in the U.S. Senate. In fact, the group is honoring Smith and three House Republicans Thursday night at the chic Hyatt Regency-Washington on Capitol Hill.

"He has fought for basic fairness for gay and lesbian Americans and has led the fight for hate crimes and HIV/AIDS legislation," Log Cabin spokesman Scott Tucker said. "He's also led the way in fighting for basic fairness in tax legislation, recently introducing the Tax Equity for Domestic Partner and Health Plan Beneficiaries Act."

Even with Smith's "less-than-Republican" positions, Rogue Valley GOP strategist Bill Maentz questions whether he is truly vulnerable, as Democrats said.

"He votes his heart and his conscience and what's best for his district," said Maentz, admitting that Smith, Oregon's junior senator, has "stuck his neck out a bit" along the way.

While he disagrees with Smith's questioning of the war, Maentz said Smith's outspokenness might actually work to his benefit by attracting moderate Democrats into his camp.

"I am a patriot first," Maentz said. "I think questioning the war is somewhat unpatriotic."

As for Bates and Golden, Maentz said even though Bates is "sophisticated enough" to make a run, he begins to worry every time he hears of a Southern Oregon figure eying a statewide office.

The Rogue Valley just isn't a springboard for a statewide campaign, he explained.

Maentz, president of the Medford communications firm that bears his name, said Bates would have an easier run than Golden, but the question remains: Would supporters in the Willamette Valley and Portland turn out for him, financially and with their votes?

"It seems like a big stretch to me," Maentz said.

Rogue Valley Community Television's political analyst, Pete Belcastro, said two Democrats from the same small town running against each other "could make for an interesting race."

The looming question of whether to enter the race is likely the "largest political decision of their lives," he said. "Local politics is one thing, but going into the national spotlight like that is something else."

Smith, 54, who was handily re-elected to a second term in 2002, defeating Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury with 56 percent of votes, said during his visit last week to Ashland that he will wait to comment on the race until he knows who his opponent will be.

"The Democrats are trying to find a candidate and they are shopping the job very broadly," Smith told the Ashland Daily Tidings. "Whoever becomes the candidate I will respect, I will debate, and I will defeat."

Among Democrats supporting Smith is state Rep. Deborah Boone of Cannon Beach and former U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Furse of Hillsboro, now a professor at Portland State University.

Before Bates and Golden decide if they'll run, political observers said they will continue to test the waters, waiting to see if Washington power brokers give them the nod that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will finance what many believe could be a knock-down-drag-out race.

Bill Lunch, professor and chair of the political science department at Oregon State University, said with Smith vowing to raise millions and national Democrats seeing Smith vulnerable enough to bankroll a challenger is enough in itself to make the race an interesting one.

"Alan Bates is a very capable politician, but so is Gordon Smith," said Lunch, Oregon Public Broadcasting's political analyst.

He cautioned there is still 17 months before the election. "Between now and then all kinds of things can and will change," he said from his Corvallis office.

Like Portland attorney and activist Steve Novick, 44, one of two announced candidates, Golden would be "a very interesting and notable local candidate," Lunch said, but would not likely be able to raise the amount of campaign cash he would need to be competitive against Smith.

Little""known Portland entrepreneur Ty Pettit also has already formally launched a campaign.

Political analyst Jerry Medler, however, warned against discounting Bates' and Golden's chances, noting that there have been many upsets in modern political history.

"But it is going to be a hard trick to pull off, and it's going to take a lot of money," said Medler, University of Oregon professor emeritus of political science.

Historically, he said, Oregonians have been comfortable sending mixed sets of senators to Washington, as they have with Smith and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

He warned that the probability of Democrats ousting Smith is reduced since he will be running for his third Senate term.

But to hear Democratic Party insiders tell it, once voters understand how much Smith is kowtowing to the Bush administration, the money race is less important.

Once they get their message out the race is theirs, Democratic strategists said.

"No Democrat that supports a woman's right to choose or opposes the Iraq war would support Gordon Smith," said Marc Siegel, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Oregon. "His positions are diametrically opposed to Democrats in Oregon."

Republicans, meanwhile, said while they don't all agree with Smith's turnabout on the war, he is the type of lawmaker that Oregonians like to support.

"Gordon Smith is not easily pigeonholed," said state Republican Party Chairman Vance Day. "He sticks to his guns and people respect that in the long run; he's a commonsense, independent voice."

Day, who has known Smith since 1990, said Smith has "done such a good job" at representing the state that Democrats "realize that it's going to be tough to take him out."

Asked about Bates, he said, "He'd be an able opponent, but I don't see him winning."

As for Golden, he has a record "a mile long," Day said, from his stint on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners from 1987 through 1990, and from the time he was chief of staff for then-state Senate President Bill Bradbury, D-Bandon.

For either Bates or Golden to unseat Smith, Day estimates their campaigns would have to outspend Smith by at least — to 1.

However, not all Republicans see Smith favorably. Among critics is the Washington, D.C.-based Club for Growth, led by antitax crusader Pat Toomey. The organization gave Smith a score of 48 out of 100 on its 2006 Congressional Scorecard, up from 46 in 2005.

"Senator Gordon Smith has demonstrated a consistent antigrowth record, voting for ballooning government spending, outrageous pork-barrel projects like Alaska's 'Bridge to Nowhere,' increased government regulation, and raiding Social Security," spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik said.

She added, "It is clear from Senator Smith's record that he is no economic conservative."

Also considering a run in the May 2008 Democratic primary is Portland businesswoman Eileen Brady, who co-founded New Seasons Markets, former Monmouth Mayor and Oregon Air National Guard Maj. Paul Evans, and Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley of Portland.

covers politics for the Ashland Daily Tidings. He can be reached at

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