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GOP Senator Running Away From McCain, Party

Perhaps no one better represents the toxic environment faced by Republican incumbents in November than Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith. Seeking re-election in the bluest of states, Smith made headlines in June, when he sought to link himself to Sen. Barack Obama — who is supporting Smith’s Democratic opponent, Jeff Merkley — in a campaign ad. Polls indicate the race is tight — a new Rasmussen poll found Smith has a six-point lead over Merkley, though the same poll previously showed it was a toss-up.

So, what’s a GOP senator in a liberal state to do? Put as much distance as possible between yourself and your party, apparently. Smith is not expected to attend the Republican National Convention next month, opting instead to stay home and campaign, according to a spokesperson. The Oregonian reported yesterday (via TPM) that Smith resigned his mostly-ceremonial position as a member of Sen. John McCain’s Oregon leadership team — and then denied he was ever part of it. From the Oregonian:

For the first time since he became a senator in 1997, Oregon Republican Gordon Smith won’t be on the leadership team of the GOP presidential campaign in Oregon. The question is whether this is part of his effort to play down his Republican party identification.

John McCain announced that former Oregon Gov. Vic Atiyeh will be honorary chairman of the campaign in Oregon. Every other top GOP official in the state – including Congressman Greg Walden and the Republican leaders of the Legislature – are listed as honorary co-chairs.

But there’s no sign of Smith, who had been one of McCain’s earliest supporters in the Senate and was listed as long ago as 2006 as McCain’s honorary co-chairman in Oregon.

Smith’s spokeswoman, Lindsay Gilbride, said Smith is not taking a leadership role because he is focused on his "tough re-election campaign." She insisted that there is no intent to distance himself from McCain or the Republican presidential effort.

"He is very supportive of John McCain," she said, adding that Smith has never had a formal role with the McCain campaign.

However, Smith is listed on McCain’s web site as being part of his national leadership team. Gilbride said that just meant Smith is one of McCain’s national supporters.

In addition, a November, 2006 listing of McCain’s campaign team (which I found on a politics web site maintained by George Washington University) listed Smith as honorary co-chair in Oregon. And Smith has been mentioned as leading the McCain campaign in Oregon several times in media reports (including from me) without any calls for correction from the Smith camp.

To make matters worse, the Service Employees International Union — the nation’s largest labor union — began running an ad in Oregon yesterday that portrays Smith as a stooge of President George W. Bush, as well as oil and drug companies.

No word yet on whether Smith is weighing a change in party affiliation as a last-ditch effort to save his job.

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