Beyond Senator Barack Obama's decisive win, the big news about Tuesday's Oregon primary — a mail-in-only election, our first— was the sheer number of voters who participated. But something disheartening happened too: By my calculations, about 13-15 percent of the Democrats who participated voted for a presidential candidate without weighing in on the slew of statewide and local races also being decided.
It's hardly a surprise that some of the races deep down on the ballot were ignored. To a degree, that's always the case. Besides, there's been much noise made here (as everywhere) about the presidential race, especially after Obama's little town-hall gathering (75,000 sun-soaked Portlanders, plus the Decemberists) over the weekend. But the Oregon Democrats are running a high-octane race for the senate seat of incumbent Republican Gordon Smith, and that has been pretty noisy as well. Contenders Steve Novick and Jeff Merkley have jabbed and jeered at one another for months now in the sorts of squabbling matches usually reserved for a general election.
Novick alone got a lot of attention, even nationally, for his uncompromising straight talk, his righteous bombast (pegging Bono as "the most hypocritical human on the face of the Earth" is one in a line of Novick rants, each requiring a few minutes of context to be understood fully) and his physical attributes (he stands 4 feet 9 inches and has a hook for a left hand). He's a rousing and committed public speaker, a fearless firebrand. But yesterday, Novick lost, narrowly, to Merkley. Both candidates lost a few votes to the spoiler, Candy Neville, who walked away with 7 percent.
In any other election year, Merkley would have crushed Novick in a landslide: Merkley has years of public service under his belt, and a spotless record. He's a genial, likable fellow and a policy wonk of the highest order. But the spread between him and his rival was reasonably small: 47 percent to 41 percent. The Democratic voters who came out for either Hillary Clinton or Obama in the presidential primary, but who opted out of every other race, could have held the key to Novick's fate. But he was unable to reach them through the static of the presidential race.
In a way, Novick's candidacy was a lot like Obama's is. Both are underdogs, running against respected, well-established opponents. Conventional wisdom doesn't give either a win; they're lucky to place or show. But Obama's ground campaign in Oregon is awesome, and not in the superlative sense: It's simply worthy of awe. His team has remarkable presence, organization and clarity of purpose, especially given the fact that he's barely even been to Portland.
Novick, on the other hand, lives here. He owes some of the nearness of his near miss to the Clinton/Obama struggle, but he couldn't capitalize on that momentum. If my math is correct, 15 out of every 100 Democratic voters didn't even register that Novick's name (or Merkley's) was on their ballot. Why? And more important: Can we convince those 15 voters to open their voter information pamphlets in November?