WASHINGTON — In 2008, Jeff Merkley was one of 10 first-timers elected to the U.S. Senate, part of a surge that put Democrats in control of Congress’ upper chamber.
Now, as the freshmen of 2008 prepare to defend their Senate seats for the first time, a slew of opponents have come forward to challenge them. In Oregon, four candidates have announced their intention to seek the Republican nomination; one other says she is considering a bid. And self-described fitness guru Pavel Goberman is vying with Merkley for the Democratic nomination.
Merkley is hardly alone in attracting a field of challengers. Including Merkley, all of the eight Democrats first elected in 2008 have at least two Republican candidates filed to run against them.
Kay Hagan, of North Carolina, has four would-be Republican opponents, including the Speaker of the state House of Representatives, while Tom Udall, of New Mexico, despite having won by more than 22 points in 2008, has three, including the lieutenant governor and the mayor of Albuquerque.
One reason the class of 2008 is facing so many challengers is that the first defense of a Senate seat is viewed as the best opportunity to defeat them, said Jim Moore, an assistant professor of politics and government and director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University in Forest Grove.
“In the past 50 years, incumbency is the No. 1 predictor of electoral success,” said Moore. “The best chance to knock off anybody is that first time when they defend and their incumbency is relatively new.”
In addition, Merkley and the other Democratic candidates benefited from the special circumstances surrounding financial collapse, which came to a head in September and October 2008, just before voters headed to the polls. When the economy goes sour, voters tend to blame the party of the sitting president, he said.
“All of those Democrats who came in then are seen as vulnerable, or needing to seem like they can stand on their own two feet without a remarkable event happening,” he said.
On a national level, Republicans are focused on the Senate because they understand that winning a majority is their best chance to limit President Barack Obama’s ability to accomplish his second-term agenda, he said. It also affords Republicans their best opportunity at repealing Obamacare.
Oregon Republicans also feel politically underrepresented, he said. No Republican has won a statewide election since Merkley’s predecessor, Gordon Smith, in 2002. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, is the only Republican member of the state’s congressional delegation.
“So, (Republicans) look out there, and they say, two big races in 2014, we’ve got to credibly take on John Kitzhaber for governor and Merkley for U.S. Senate,” Moore said. “Of those, Merkley looks like the better shot, because he’s the first-term incumbent.”
Two of the Republican candidates vying for the opportunity to run against Merkley in the general election are from Central Oregon.
Earlier this month, state Rep. Jason Conger, R-Bend, kicked off his Senate campaign, and Bend resident and Centratel CEO Sam Carpenter filed his paperwork in September.
Conger said he understands that challengers inherently face an uphill climb. But he beat an incumbent to become a member of the Oregon Legislature, and hopes to repeat that performance in a statewide election.
“In any Senate race, the incumbent has a huge advantage,” he said. “With that said, I’ve been an underdog most of my life ... (That) doesn’t make it impossible, it just requires more work.”
Before deciding to run for U.S. Senate, Conger looked hard at the political landscape of 2008 versus 2014.
“2008 was almost an anomaly, just in terms of the impact of then-candidate, now President Obama on the electorate,” he said, noting that the number of registered Democrats in Oregon jumped noticeably, bucking a decades-long trend of relative parity between the two parties. “The enthusiasm that he created was, I think, unprecedented.”
This cycle, Obama is an increasingly unpopular president in his second term, which will be a drag on candidates from his party in a midterm election, Conger said.
Carpenter said he was motivated to run in part because he has a different philosophy of governing than Merkley.
“His prime motive is to have the government, in general, make decisions for us as individuals,” Carpenter said. “I feel that we individuals are capable of making logical decisions (for ourselves).”
Carpenter said that his background in engineering and in business, both as an executive and a consultant, has taught him how to fix things, particularly at a leadership level. He appreciates the irony of wanting to limit the role of federal government while striving to become a member of it.
“Somebody has to get inside the machinery to change the machinery. The machinery isn’t going to be simplified unless someone gets inside it,” he said. “If you’re going to fix a business, you don’t stand on the outside shouting changes.”
Carpenter pointed to Congress’ very low approval ratings as an opportunity for a candidate who is not a professional politician.
“I think that everybody on both sides of the aisle is pretty disgusted with the way that things are,” he said.
Merkley campaign spokesman Tim Leahy said: “Sen. Merkley is focused on doing the job Oregonians want him to do: making this country work for middle class people again by fighting to create good paying jobs, make college more affordable, and cracking down on the predatory practices of Wall Street and the big banks.”
Incumbents enjoy a major advantage in their ability to raise money more easily, notes the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group based in Washington, D.C., that tracks money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy.
In the last three elections, incumbent senators on average have raised at least seven times more money than their challengers. The average fundraising haul for incumbents has grown steadily, from $8.7 million in 2008 to $11.2 million in 2010 and $11.8 million in 2012, raising the price of entry for their opponents.
Historically, Senate incumbents have won re-election at a high rate. In every election since 1980, when just 55 percent retained their seats during the Reagan revolution, incumbents have won at least 75 percent of the time.
Thus far, no outside group has jumped into the race, spending money on advertising aimed at swaying the election, Moore said.
And without a statewide presence, the Republican candidates who have declared thus far will struggle to compete with Merkley, who has $2.3 million in cash on hand, he said.
“The ground is ready for a Republican, but I don’t think this particular crop of candidates is ready to make that happen,” Moore said.