After 28 years, the door to both of Oregon's senate seats has swung wide open. The race to replace Republican powerhouses Mark Hatfield, who has announced his retirement after November, and Bob Packwood, forced to resign, begins with the Jan. 30 election for Packwood's spot.
Because many see the race for Packwood's seat as a bellwether for all Senate hopefuls in 1996, it has captured national attention. So far, the contest between Democratic Rep. Ron Wyden and Republican Gordon Smith, president of the state senate and owner of a food processing plant, has been bitter and acrimonious. "Each candidate has pulled all sorts of devices to demonize the other one," says Sally Cross of Oregon Natural Resources Council. Both campaigns have raised $2.5 million for a TV war so ugly the candidates decided to give the public a two-day reprieve from negative commercials over Christmas.
Weeks before the deadline for mail ballots, the two candidates remain in a dead heat.
At the center of the showdown are environmental issues ranging from logging to salmon. The Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters quickly jumped into the fray by raising more than $100,000 to defeat Smith. Their TV ads blast him for 10 recent chemical spills at his frozen pea-packing plant and his low 4 percent LCV scorecard for environmental votes in 1995. In November, Smith fired back, charging salmon activists with trying to depopulate Oregon from 3 million to 1 million people. But more recently Smith has highlighted his ability as a broker between environmentalists and business interests.
Not everyone agrees that Wyden promises a brighter future for Oregon's environment. Native Forest Council's Tim Hermach says Wyden, who received an 89 percent LCV score in 1994, has never been a leader on environmental issues. Hermach adds, "The only environmental credibility Ron Wyden has is that which we give him."
Betsy Loyless of the League of Conservation Voters says that backing Wyden is part of the league's national strategy to expose the Republicans' war on the environment. The league plans to spend an unprecedented $800,000 to campaign against the worst environmental offenders in 1996.
Come November, the rest of the country will vote on a record number of open Senate seats. Like Hatfield, nearly half of the senators up for re-election have decided to retire.
* Heather Abel