Oregon Senator’s 4-day N.H. visit raises speculation of presidential run

  • Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon speaks to members of the New Hampshire Young Democrats at their annual summer barbecue in Portsmouth on Thursday. PAUL STEINHAUSER—For the Monitor

  • Democratic Gov. Jeff Merkley of Oregon speaks to supporters at a house party in the Concord home of former Congressman Paul Hodes on Friday, July 13, 2018. PAUL STEINHAUSER—For the Monitor

  • U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., speaks to supporters at a house party in the Concord home of former Congressman Paul Hodes on Friday. PAUL STEINHAUSER / For the Monitor

For the Monitor
Published: 7/13/2018 6:34:55 PM

Sen. Jeff Merkley demurs when the conversation turns to a potential White House run.

“I’m focused primarily on the 2018 races,” the Oregon Democrat told the Monitor.

But a look at Merkley’s jam-packed four-day swing this weekend through New Hampshire may be more telling than what he publicly says about a potential presidential bid.

The senator spent a good chunk of Friday in Concord, sitting down for media interviews, holding private meetings with influential Democrats, and headlining a house party at the home of former Congressman Paul Hodes.

The trip is the third this year by the progressive senator to New Hampshire, the state that holds the first presidential primary. But it’s Merkley’s first since he grabbed national attention early last month, as the first Democrat in Congress to travel to the U.S.-Mexican border to try and visit a detention center holding immigrant family members separated after illegally entering the country.

“Sen. Merkley is a guy with a brain, a heart, and a conscience,” Hodes said.

“He’s been creating a lot of buzz among progressives and folks who have followed what he’s done on the family separation issue. He was an early leader and took a really strong stand and brought attention to that,” Hodes added.

When asked about any presidential ambitions, Merkely emphasized that his main effort right now is to help fellow Democrats win in the midterm elections, explaining that “in terms of 2020, that comes after 2018.”

“After the November election I’ll take in the whole landscape, talk to the family. It’s a question that can happen down the road.”

But his trip has the feel of a campaign swing. After his stops in Concord, he headed to a Northern Grafton County Democrats house party in Franconia. On Saturday, he’ll be the main attraction at a gathering hosted by the Plymouth Democrats.

Sunday, the senator’s back in Concord, holding back-to-back education and environmental roundtable discussions at New England College’s Main Street facility. Then he heads to Lebanon for an Upper Valley Democrats house party, followed by a Sullivan County Democrats gathering at the Cornish home of former state Sen. Peter Burling.

Merkley kicked off his ambitious four-day trip Thursday evening in Portsmouth, headlining the New Hampshire Young Democrats annual summer barbecue. His appearance helped the influential group raise a record $30,000 at their major summer fundraising event. The funds will be used for Young Democrats running for office this autumn.

“Whenever I go anywhere, I try to pack in every single hour with meetings,” Merkley said of his busy Granite State itinerary. “There’s no time to be wasted.”

New Hampshire Young Democrats president Lucas Meyer said, “We were very excited that Sen. Merkley was interested to come up to New Hampshire to speak at our annual barbeque.”

And he pointed out that such early trips could pay dividends down the road.

“Putting in the work now, regardless of what your future entails, to meet with young activists in the state, young candidates and elected officials, those relationships don’t go away. And if he decides that he wants to take a step to run for president, the time he puts in now will be appreciated,” Meyer explained.

Hodes, who also interviewed Merkley for his radio program, said “I think he’s serious about taking the pulse of New Hampshire. He’s been here a couple of times now and I think he’s certainly energizing voters on the left.”

Merkley was the only Democrat in the U.S. Senate to endorse Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. In his first trip to New Hampshire earlier this year, he met with some of Sanders’s top Granite State backers.

One of them, former state Sen. Burt Cohen, listened to Merkley’s speech on Thursday evening and came away impressed.

“I like Merkley quite a bit. He’s very reassuring. And I think perhaps reassuring is what people need this time around. Trump has shaken things up so much, he’s sort of a calming influence,” Cohen said.

In his speech, Merkley highlighted his push for a single-payer Medicare-for-all health care program, refinancing college loans at lower rates, ending partisan gerrymandering, and his “Mission 100” goal of moving towards 100 percent renewable energy.

He urged making the transition to clean energy “an issue in every campaign across the country.”

And he discussed his trips to the southern border, which inspired other Democrats to follow in his footsteps and helped spark national protests against President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy.

“Due to the outcry across America, they’ve said ‘We’ll reunite those kids’ and in a couple of weeks they’ve only been able to reunite a few dozen because they didn’t keep track of the kids and the parents, which is just so horrific,’ Merkley said. “Now the administration says we’re going to trade in family separate for family incarceration.”

“How about this – we just say ‘Hell no. There’s not going to be any internment camps here in the United States of America,’ ” the senator added, getting heated.

Merkley told the crowd that “we have to strip away the secrecy of this grand conspiracy of the administration and their assault on immigrants fleeing persecution.”

In his speech, Merkley also took aim at Trump, criticizing him for “cozying up to Russia.”

And in his interview, the senator argued that “we are so far off track. We have a President who is violating all kinds of core principals. He’s cozying up to dictators while he’s attacking our allies.”

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