As part of the 2008 election cycle, one of Oregon's senate seats was up for election. As in so much else in the 2008 election, the contest became much more competitive and surprising than was first thought. The election was won by the Democratic challenger, Jeff Merkley, over the Republican incumbent, Gordon Smith.
Having spoiled that conclusion, the background should be explained. Gordon Smith first entered the senate in 1996, when Oregon was somewhat more conservative than it is now. He easily won reelection in 2002, buoyed along by the popularity of the Republican Party in the era between 9/11 and the beginning of the Iraq War. He also was, if not particularly moderate, not particularly conservative either, and his persona was acceptable to many Oregonians, even if his politics were not. Over the next six years, the mood and politics of Oregon and the nation shifted greatly, with public disillusionment with the Iraq War driving many moderates away from the Republican Party, and with Oregon, especially in the Portland area undergoing a demographic shift to young, educated voters that tend to be quite liberal. Gordon Smith still maintained his popularity, and being one of the first Republican senators to speak out against the Iraq War helped him maintain that popularity, for a while. Going into the election season,two people campaigned in the primary for the perhaps thankless task of challenging an incumbent senator: Jeff Merkley and Steve Novick. Although the primary race was close, Jeff Merkley won, and proceeded to race against Gordon Smith.
At first, Gordon Smith led in the race, and kept a mostly positive tone. He even ran ads where he linked himself to Barack Obama, who was popular in Oregon. He also ran ads where Democratic politicians endorsed him. He polled several points ahead of Merkley, and it looked like he would carry the race, although narrowly.
And then something happened. There could be many guesses on what happened, with many of them tied back to the banking crisis that hit for a third time when Lehman Brothers failed, but I think it had more to do with Sarah Palin than anything else. As long as John McCain was running as an elder statesman and Gordon Smith was talking about bipartisanship, moderate voters in the suburban areas of Oregon might vote for Smith. As soon as Sarah Palin started "motivating the base" and appealing to "Real America", she gave an image problem to the Republican Party, and by extension, Smith. Moderate suburbanites were turned off by a party that seemed to be appealing to the worst aspects of people's xenophobia. I believe that this is what gave Merkley the last few points he needed to win.
The election itself was close, and was not determined until several days later. Initial returns showed Smith in the lead, partly because Multnomah County had received a flood of ballots, and also a literal flood in their elections building. Multnomah County, where Portland is located, is Oregon's largest, most liberal county,and as the votes came in, it was clear Merkley would win. His victory margin was much narrower than Obama's was, in Oregon. Together with the votes lost to a Third Party candidate from the Constitution Party, Merkley won narrowly, 49%-46%.
The election was part of the six seats (so far, two elections remain unfinished) that the Democratic Party picked up in the 2008 election, and is one of the many points of consternation among Republicans who wonder if their party can hold seats in areas with urbanized populations. Whether this will be the case in the future, or whether this election was just a result of the year's wave remains to be seen.