Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Portland hopes to sew up his seat for another six years, with Democrats pushing to snatch a Senate majority from Republicans on Nov. 3.
"I'm going to work to fix our broken and dysfunctional Senate so it isn't just a graveyard for good ideas," Merkley said in a March 3 video to supporters.
Merkley ironically made the comment while throwing in the towel on his unofficial bid to be the Democratic nominee against President Trump. Since 2019, he'd visited Iowa and New Hampshire to court progressive Democrats. He's the third most liberal member of the Senate, according to voting site GovTrack.us, with only Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Kristen Gillibrand of New York to his left.
Unfortunately for Merkley, Sanders and Gillibrand also were seeking the presidential nomination.
With his polling numbers behind most of the 15-person primary field at the time, Merkley switched his attention back to the Senate. There he starts out with the advantages of incumbency and the 286,560-voter registration edge Democrats hold over Republicans in Oregon.
Linn County Republican Party Chair Jo Rae Perkins is his opponent in the Senate race, but Merkley more often is running against Trump and the Senate majority that has made the president's policies into laws. During February's Senate impeachment trial, Merkley voted to remove Trump from office. He's also voted against the president's nominees for the U.S. Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch. Merkley was on the losing end of those votes.
Merkley has called out the "racist rants and glorification of violence" of white supremacist groups he says Trump implicitly condones. He co-sponsored legislation to ensure there are enough polling places on Election Day. He's criticized what he says was Trump's dismissal of COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic crisis. Merkley says presidential inaction, delay and misinformation undercut efforts to slow the virus, which has killed more than 210,000 people in the United States.
Merkley has been outspoken on what he says is the mistreatment of immigrants at the U.S.-Mexican border. He gained national attention in June 2018 when he tried to visit a shuttered Walmart in Brownsville, Texas, that a federal contractor had used as a detention center for immigrant children separated from their parents. The contractor called local police to bar him from entry.
"I challenge anybody to name an Oregonian who cares about people as much as Jeff does."
Last month, Merkley called for an investigation of hysterectomies allegedly forced on immigrant women by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at a facility in Georgia.
Merkley also has hit issues of local importance to constituents. Following wildfires that burned 1 million acres across the states, he joined other top Oregon Democrats meeting with FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor to push for faster federal aid on safe drinking water, emergency housing and debris removal.
With Oregon's senior senator, Ron Wyden, Merkley announced that schools across Oregon would receive more than $150 million in federal support to better educate low-income students.
Battling Oregon's leftists
Democratic Party of Oregon chair K.C. Hanson points to Merkley's roots in Southern Oregon and his tenure in the Legislature, including a stint as Speaker of the House, as giving him the political skills needed to take action on regional to international issues.
"The best advocate we have," Hanson said. "I challenge anybody to name an Oregonian who cares about people as much as Jeff does."
That's a narrative that Perkins, the Republican Senate nominee from Albany, would like to flip around. Perkins says she is a social and fiscal conservative who is an outspoken supporter of Trump and his policies on immigration, gun rights and taxes.
"She wants to bring back a kinder, more caring, more loving Oregon that we used to know."
In her online ads, Perkins portrays Merkley as an absentee senator enamored with issues beyond Oregon. She paints him as one of the Democrat "leftists" leading the state, abetted by fellow Democrats including Wyden, Gov. Kate Brown and state Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.
Perkins says Democrats' impact on the state is best illustrated by more than 100 days of protests by Black Lives Matter and other groups in Portland neighborhoods. In a recent online ad, she zeroed in on Merkley amid visuals of demonstrators running in streets, law enforcement in riot gear and the air swirling with tear gas.
"This is not the Oregon you signed up for," according to the ads, before shifting to a scene of Perkins looking across a sweeping rural landscape. "She wants to bring back a kinder, more caring, more loving Oregon that we used to know."
A 'digital soldier'?
Oregon Republicans hoped to recruit a state lawmaker or other high-profile Oregonian to run against Merkley. Merkley was first elected to the Senate in 2008, when he beat incumbent Sen. Gordon Smith by just over 2% of the vote. Merkley's first bid for reelection in 2014 attracted multiple well-known, well-connected GOP opponents.
Former Oregon Medical Association President Dr. Monica Wehby beat Rep. Jason Conger, R-Bend, in the 2014 GOP primary. Wehby ran as an opponent of the Affordable Care Act with the campaign slogan "Keep Your Doctor, Change Your Senator." She raised $3.3 million. Merkley beat Wehby 56% to 37%.
In 2020, none of the more than 30 Republican state legislators signed up to run against Merkley. Neither did retiring U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, who had passed up earlier opportunities to run for the Senate or governor.
The May 19 Republican Senate primary ballot featured unknowns and perennial candidates who were also-rans in previous bids for public office. Perkins won with 49.2% of the vote. It was her first primary win in three tries for congressional offices. Perkins lost the 2014 Republican primary won by Wehby, receiving 2.8% of the vote. She lost GOP primaries for the 4th Congressional District in 2016 and 2018.
Merkley ran unopposed in the Democratic primary and received 564,000 votes — 200,000 more votes than all the GOP candidates combined.
Perkins has attracted national attention for her support of QAnon, a growing conspiracy theory movement that believes a "deep state" of government officials is trying to undermine Trump. The group is designated by the FBI as a domestic terrorist threat.
After winning the Senate primary, Perkins made a video using the QAnon slogan, "Where we go one, we go all."
"I stand with President Trump," Perkins said. "I stand with Q and the team. Thank you, anons, thank you, patriots. Together, we can save our republic."
Perkins has since deleted the video from her websites, but it was downloaded by media organizations.
QAnon's "digital soldiers" first gained public attention in 2017 for social media posts claiming that Hillary Clinton and other top Democrats operated child prostitution rings from the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor.
That March, Edgar Maddison Welch of Salisbury, North Carolina, drove more than four hours to the Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria in the nation's capital and stormed inside with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and a revolver. Customers and workers fled as Welch went through the small restaurant, firing three shots that injured no one. He searched closets and a small storeroom in what he later said was an attempt to free captive children, but found none. He was sentenced to four years in prison for the assault.
Huge campaign fund gap
Perkins supporters either can't or won't put their money where their mouths are. Federal Elections Commission reports are filed quarterly. The current campaign finance reports only run through June, with totals through September expected to be released soon. The early totals show a yawning gap between the candidates: Merkley has raised $4.7 million and spent $2.8 million since the beginning of 2019; Perkins has raised $$37,255,and spent $31,389.
All major national nonpartisan vote analysis websites rate Merkley the overwhelming favorite and the Senate seat as "solid Democrat."
Merkley also has been endorsed by the Independent and Working families parties. Gary Dye is the Libertarian and Ibrahim Taher has been endorsed by both the Pacific Green and Progressive parties.
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