Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley has apparently given up hope that state legislators will change the law so he could file to run for both the presidency and for re-election to his Senate seat in 2020.
But, as Merkley acknowledges, he still has the opportunity to test his presidential appeal while keeping his re-election option open.
In fact, at least 13 states – including the crucial first-in-the-nation contests in Iowa and New Hampshire – are set to hold a primary or caucus before Oregon’s March 10, 2020, filing deadline. And another six are scheduled to vote March 10.
Willamette Week first reported in mid-November that Merkley had talked to state legislators about changing Oregon law to allow him to appear on the ballot as both a presidential and senatorial candidate.
However, Merkley told reporters last week that a new law is “entirely up to the House and Senate in Oregon, and I don’t think the Senate is inclined to change it. So I think we’re going to have the law we have.”
Merkley later tweeted that he is “completely fine with that. Our leaders in Salem have plenty of important issues to build consensus around.”
Oregon Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, said that both Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, and Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, expressed concern about changing the law.
“I don’t think it’s going anywhere,” Burdick said, adding that she told Merkley that personally she would be happy to change it to help an Oregonian run for president.
Burdick did hold out the possibility that the 2020 Legislature could tweak the law by, for example, changing the filing deadline.
Merkley has talked about deciding by the end of this year whether to seek the presidency, and he is expected to announce his plans relatively early in 2019. He said that he’s interested in pursuing three issues: combating climate change, helping families thrive and protecting the elections system from big money and voter suppression.
When Merkley spoke to reporters at the Oregon Leadership Summit in Portland on Dec. 3, he talked about how he could go deep into the primary season before the state’s filing deadline.
“As you know, after the first couple of states, you knock out 90 percent of the candidates,” he said. “So that would give me a chance to decide on” whether to seek re-election.
Robert Stoll, a retired lawyer and a former top official of the Oregon Democratic Party, said he’d like to see state law changed to allow Merkley to run simultaneously for both seats. Stoll said he thinks it would be good for the state’s stature while allowing Merkley to continue serving in at least one of those elected positions.
But assuming the law stays the same, Stoll said Merkley doesn’t have to make a decision anytime soon.
“I have not received any negative reports from anybody about him pursuing both simultaneously,” Stoll said. “And that’s from a lot of Democratic activists in Oregon.”
Stoll said he also thought Democrats have a large bench of contenders who can jump into a Senate race at the last minute if Merkley decides not to file for re-election.
“Nothing is certain,” he said, but “I think it is very difficult for a Republican in Oregon right now.”
Dan Lavey, a political consultant in Oregon who worked for GOP Sen. Gordon Smith before losing to Merkley in 2008, said Merkley has a “lot of hurdles to clear before he gets to people voting” in the presidential primaries.
Among other things, Merkley has to demonstrate that he can raise money, attract favorable attention in debates and gain a real following. Merkley’s presidential prospects are probably more likely to be “determined between October and December [of 2019] than between January and March” of 2020, Lavey added.
Lavey did agree with Stoll that the strong Democratic tilt in Oregon gives Merkley the chance to keep his options open up until the state’s filing deadline while still keeping his Senate seat in Democratic hands.
“This is all upside for Merkley and little downside for Oregon Democrats,” Lavey said.
Still, Lavey added that he wasn’t surprised Democratic legislators in Salem are wary about changing Oregon’s election laws.
“Changing the rules for one guy, people don’t generally like that,” Lavey said.
State laws are all over the map on when candidates are allowed to run for more than one seat at a time. In Oregon, it’s allowed if one of the positions is not paid. New Jersey recently changed its law to allow Democratic Sen. Cory Booker to run for president and re-election at the same time.
Outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, ran for re-election while he was Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012. So did Joe Lieberman in 2000, when he was running for re-election as a Connecticut senator and as the running mate to Democrat Al Gore.
Conversely, Florida doesn’t allow a candidate to run for both the presidency and Senate at the same time. In 2016, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio ran for president while insisting he would leave the Senate. But after his presidential hopes flamed out, he filed for re-election and won another term.