SALEM &

State Sen. Alan Bates' potential run for the United States Senate has outspoken critics and loyal supporters considering the Rogue Valley Democrat's chances of unseating the West Coast's only Republican senator.

Bates, who first told The Daily Tidings on May 16 that he is "seriously considering" challenging Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., explained that he has been grappling with the decision for months, and will formally announce his intentions after the end of the legislative session this summer.

"We are just waiting for him to say that he is in," said Paulie Brading, chairwoman of the Jackson County Democratic Central Committee on Wednesday. "Once he does, I hope we will hit the campaign trail running."

Brading, who leads the county Democratic Party, said just because Bates is not known widely outside of Southern Oregon does not mean that he would not be able to generate the support from Portland he would need to win.

"I can even imagine Republicans and Democrats along the coast, in Astoria, in Hood River looking at him very seriously," Brading said. "Alan Bates is honest and straightforward, and people will see that."

However, perhaps more than appealing to urban voters, Bates, a family physician, needs to project himself as a just left-of-center Democrat so not to be painted by his opponents as a radical senator "from latte-drinking, Volvo-driving Ashland," she said.

The veteran state legislator, dubbed "Doc Bates" by his colleagues, is perhaps most known for the health care overhaul he proposed this session with state Sen. Ben Westlund, a Bend-area Democrat who ran for governor in 2006 as an Independent.

"Alan Bates is one of the finest legislators to ever walk in the Capitol building, and I would hate to lose him as a colleague," Westlund said. "But he would make an equally good U.S. senator and with his qualifications he could win."

Supporters consistently say that they feel bolstered by Bates' win in the 3rd State Senate District, where voter registration slightly favors Republicans over Democrats.

That, combined with Bates' strong bipartisan credentials, medical career and military service during the Vietnam War are the makings of a formidable candidate, they say.

But even with his enviable resume, not all local Democratic stalwarts believe that Bates would successfully mount a challenge to Smith, 54, who handily won a second term in 2002, defeating Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury with 56 percent of votes.

"Senator Bates would do an excellent job," said Jan Waitt, a member of the Jackson County Democratic Central Committee. "I just don't know if he has enough support statewide to do it."

Cathy Shaw, former Ashland mayor and Bates' campaign strategist, concedes that for Bates to win the Democratic primary, he would need to introduce himself more to voters outside of the Rogue Valley.

"Whoever decides to run needs to be prepared for the rough road of running against a sitting United States senator," said Shaw, author of one of the definitive university texts on running local political campaigns.

"Oregon loves an incumbent," she said, noting that Smith was not popular in the polls when he beat out Bradbury.

As for running an aggressive race, Shaw said Bates "never has, and never will" run a negative campaign. "He just doesn't do that," Shaw said. "People say it wins elections, but it doesn't."

Should Bates, 62, decide to jump in the race, before he could face Smith in the 2008 general election, he would first have to beat out fellow Democrats, attorney Steve Novick, 44, and businessman Ty Pettit, 56, who have already launched hometown campaigns in Portland.

Waitt, who is the precinct organizer for the county Democratic Party, said Novick might be a more formidable opponent to Smith given his Portland connections and keen intellect.

She said Novick, a former Justice Department lawyer, has the "wit to maybe outsmart" Smith, who is known as an aggressive and experienced campaigner.

Bates and Novick would both make "excellent candidates" to go against Smith, said Sue Densmore, a 2004 Democratic candidate for the Jackson County Board of Commissioners and president of a public relations firm in Medford that bears her name.

A primary race between Bates and Novick, she said, would be "hard to call."

Densmore cautioned that it might be an especially "challenging race" for Bates to run a statewide campaign having somewhat limited visibility as a legislator from Southern Oregon.

On the up side, she said, as voters look for fresh ideas and wonder where exactly Smith stands on the issues that he has flip-flopped on, Democrats have a greater chance to unseat him than they have in years past.

Led by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is targeting, in addition to Smith, fellow Republican Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Susan Collins of Maine, and John Sununu of New Hampshire in 2008.

Seeking center

Smith, a member of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership, has bucked his party on several issues, especially since the mid-term elections of 2006. On the war in Iraq, he said in December 2006 that the U.S. policy in Iraq ""may even be criminal."

"I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way being blown up by the same bombs day after day," Smith said in a floor speech.

Then weeks later he declined to sign onto a bipartisan resolution to oppose President Bush's plan to increase troop levels in Iraq by 21,500 to help quell sectarian violence in the war-torn country, prompting some critics to question his sincerity in opposing the war.

On gay rights, Smith, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, parted with most Republicans to support legislation to extend hate crimes to protect gays and lesbians.

However, he disappoints gay rights groups because of his support for the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would define constitutionally marriage as between one man and one woman.

On right to life issues, Smith opposes a woman's right to choose, but supports expanded federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Some anti-abortion activists say it is reprehensible to use aborted fetuses for medical research.

Bryan Platt, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Central Committee, said while Smith has cast some votes that have disappointed his conservative base, Republicans will stand happily behind Smith over any Democrat come Election Day.

"Like it or not, Oregon is a blue state," Platt said. "I may not like (his votes) but I don't blame him."

The most recent poll numbers suggest most Republicans are not as understanding as Platt is when it comes to Smith's performance.

According to a SurveyUSA poll to be released later this week, Smith's approval rating among Republicans is at about 50 percent, down seven points to the lowest it has been in 24 months, said SurveyUSA editor Jay Leve.

Among Democrats, Smith's approval rating has inched up to 47 percent, while 45 have an unfavorable opinion of him, according to the poll commissioned by KATU-TV in Portland. In April, just 42 percent of Democrats saw Smith favorably.

Brading, leader of the county Democratic Party, said Smith is something of a political chameleon.

"Senator Smith's attempts to reinvent himself in time for the election are pretty transparent to the voters," she said, noting that Smith has been a "right wing Bush backer" 90 percent of the time.

Torrid Joe, editor of the left-leaning blog Loaded Orygun, says it is indisputable that Smith is politically vulnerable, and said there is nothing wrong with a crowded primary field vying for his seat. "A full competition is a good thing," he said. "It brings the issues to the fore."

Joe said while he "can't find anything wrong" with Bates, he is throwing his support behind Novick because he is not a cog in the "mainstream political machine," as Bates is inherently, being a member of the state Legislature.

"People are hungry for something else," he said.

Jason Williams, executive director of the Taxpayer Association of Oregon, said if the state’s Democratic House delegation is not willing to take on Smith that ought to tell you something.

Williams said just because Smith's "pro-tax opponents" are talking about how politically vulnerable he is to a Democratic challenge "doesn't mean it's true."

Bates' rift

The path to Capitol Hill may be bumpy a bumpy ride should Bates forge ahead.

Earlier this year, Bates drew the ire of local environmentalists by suggesting publicly that oversight of the 2.4 million acres of former Oregon and California Railroad land change from the federal government to the state forester.

A modest increase in logging, Bates argued, could be a boon for cash-strapped Jackson County, especially since federal timber subsidies from the land are in peril.

Environmentalists, however, say that placing the forestlands under the state's control would threaten the Oregon's remaining old growth forests.

One local environmentalist said Bates' idea "lacks wisdom and historical perspective."

He said even a moderate cut, as Bates proposes, would damage the forests, which are "already ecologically adrift."

The suggestion, he said, could keep some of Bates' voter base from turning out to support him as strongly as they might have otherwise.

"But whether they would vote for Senator Smith is another question," he said. "Sometimes people have a hard time voting for someone even when it's in their best interest."

covers the state Legislature for The Daily Tidings. Reach him at csrizo@hotmail.com.