When state House Speaker Karen Minnis refused to allow a vote last week on same-sex civil unions, the Democratic Party demanded U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, step in with his Republican colleague.
"Gordon Smith should spend five minutes of his day to pick up the phone or declare publicly that Karen Minnis needs to grant an up-or-down vote on the most important legislation for gays and lesbians in the history of Oregon," state Democratic Party chairman Jim Edmundson said in a press release.
No major media picked up on the challenge to the state's highest-ranking Republican. And the issue-for Smith, at least-went away. But he knows the Democrats' newly intense spotlight on him will not go away.
"They do that every week," he told WW when asked about the Dems' press release.
In the political lingo in which Republican states are red and Democratic states blue, Smith looms for many Oregon Dems as their Moby Dick-a giant red whale swimming in an increasingly blue sea.
And that hunt, over the next few years, promises to be one of the more intriguing tales in Oregon politics.
Smith has long tried to bridge the gap between the right-wingers controlling his national party and the average Oregonian. But now, thanks to a new staffed-up party apparatus for the Dems, he will have to walk that tightrope with someone constantly lobbing eggs at him.
"He's clearly someone who tries to position himself as a moderate," says spokesman Kelly Steele of the state Democratic Party. "He's not.''
Steele's efforts reflect a new level of activity for Oregon Democrats who, as one GOP consultant put it, for the first time "have their shit together."
Besides the plea for Smith to go to bat with Minnis for civil unions-which Smith ignored-a state Democratic ad campaign in April called on him to reject President George Bush's plan to privatize Social Security (Smith's only public statement so far: He opposes eliminating the Social Security tax exemption benefiting those earning more than $90,000 a year).
In May, the Dems highlighted Smith's trip with his wife to a luxurious castle in Ireland two years ago. The problem? The trip appeared to violate congressional ethics rules since it was organized and paid for by a corporate lobbyist (Smith responded by promising to investigate, then amended his disclosure forms to remove the lobbyist's name).
Small wonder that Smith's people are on edge. Oregon, says his political adviser Dan Lavey, "is a blue state trending bluer. He's going to be a target for the national [Democratic] party."
Political observers say Smith has clearly figured out that he needs to differentiate himself from the conservative Bush White House. Just last Thursday, he held a dinner for his Democrats for Smith group.
He's also tending to his record: Smith voted in March against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And though he agreed with a proposal last year to ban gay marriage, he tried to leave room for civil unions.
Steele, however, says Smith's differences with Bush are fewer and less significant than people think. He points to Smith's opposition to Bush's proposed cuts to Medicaid, which earned the senator a glowing editorial from The Oregonian. Steele notes that later, unnoticed by local media, Smith said he'd support Bush's budget whether it contained those cuts or not.
Steele also points to Smith's votes against combating global warming, as well as his backing of Bush's "nuclear option" to slip highly conservative judges past a Democratic filibuster-a move that some moderate Republicans opposed.
Recent headlines show the other horn of Smith's dilemma: a potential backlash from within his own party. When Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist recently came out in support of stem-cell research-a stance Smith shares-right-wing potentate James Dobson likened the research to experiments conducted by Nazi Germany on live human patients.
"If his party continues to move to the right, he will have to look for more and more opportunities to differentiate himself," says pollster Tim Hibbitts. "I don't see him as particularly vulnerable right now, but two years from now I could give you a very different answer to that question."
In Smith's last re-election campaign, in 2002, one summer poll had his opponent, Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, down by only four points. But Smith unleashed ads touting his position opposing hate crimes, including against gays. That November, Smith crushed Bradbury by 18 points. Next time, he knows he won't have it so easy.
"It's a long way until 2008," says Smith. "Political popularity and political trends turn on a dime."