by: CHASE ALLGOOD - Matt Allen gave Ben Unger, a Democrat running in House District 30, a sample of berry preserves during Unger's door-to-door canvassing in Hillsboro last weekend. Allen works in the canning industry and Unger has a paset in berry farming.The battle for control of the Oregon Legislature begins in earnest after Labor Day, and suburban Portland races will again play an oversized role in determining which party seizes power.

That’s especially true in the Oregon House of Representatives, where Democrats and Republicans each hold 30 seats and were forced to share power the past two years.

Party leaders on both sides say most of the action this fall will center on six former Democrat-held seats won by Republicans in 2010. Four of those districts are in East Portland/Clackamas, Hillsboro and Gresham.

Most voters don’t pay attention to legislative races until the fall, and many don’t know the name of their state lawmaker until they vote.

But with the two presidential candidates campaigns spending little time or money in the state so far, the tussle for control of the Oregon House figures to get national attention in this record-shattering year for campaign spending. 

House races could be Oregon’s “marquee election of the year,” says Nick Smith, executive director of the House Republicans’ campaign arm. “The Oregon House is probably going to attract most of the attention and a lot of the resources that would otherwise go to up-ticket races.” 

Smith’s caucus recently collected a $100,000 donation from a national Republican group. But Democrats also expect to get their share of outside money, as the House represents one of a handful of opportunities in the nation to shift control of a state chamber.

“A lot of national funders are looking at us as a likely pickup for Democrats,” says House Democratic Leader Tina Kotek, D-Portland.

Playing defense

House Republicans say they’ll largely focus on trying to hold onto the six seats they captured in 2010. All six districts are “upside down” for the GOP, with more registered Democrats than Republicans, says state Rep. Bruce Hanna, R-Roseburg, the co-speaker of the Oregon House the past two sessions.

Republicans also are targeting five other Democratic seats in hopes of getting to 31 or 32 seats, Smith says, including districts in Beaverton, Gladstone/Oregon City, Woodburn, Springfield and Salem.

Democrats say they relish going on offense this year, as voter turnout could be about 10 percentage points higher than in 2010, with Obama on the top of the ticket.

Democrats will focus on retaking the six seats they lost in 2010, including the four Portland-area districts and districts in Hood River and Bend, plus a seventh seat in West Linn, says Melissa Unger, executive director of the House Democrats’ campaign arm.

Obama carried all seven House districts in 2008, Unger says, but then Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber, at the top of the ticket in 2010, lost in those districts. 

“I believe in 2012 Obama’s going to win them all again.”

Suburban shift

Washington County races could prove more amenable to Democrats than Clackamas County races, based on recent trends.

Clackamas County voters rejected a plan last year that would have required them to pay a small share of funding for the Sellwood Bridge, and fired-up conservatives there are mobilizing to oppose expansion of TriMet’s Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line. Dave Hunt, the former Democratic House speaker, recently came in fourth in a race for Clackamas County chair position.

Democrats’ voter-registration edge has narrowed in Clackamas County the past two years, while staying the same in Washington County.

Democrats don’t figure to enjoy the same fundraising advantage they had in 2010, when most analysts wrongly predicted they would retain their House majority. The House Democrats’ campaign arm raised $2 million in 2010, double the amount raised by their Republican counterpart.

So far this year, the House Democrats campaign arm has raised $673,591, compared to $491,083 for the Republicans.

Republicans say they’re polling well in the swing districts and remain confident of their prospects. Hanna says Republicans will argue their joint leadership of the House enabled lawmakers to balance the budget multiple times without new taxes and fee increases. They’ll also tout reforms that expanded charter and on-line schools, he says. The six first-time lawmakers can stress achievements in office, which gives them an advantage in campaigns, Hanna says. 

Democrats will stress their support for public schools, amid growing concerns in the suburbs about declining schools.

“I think people are worried about their kids’ future,” Kotek says.

Voters don’t care much about charter school reforms, she says, compared to teacher layoffs

Kotek also thinks national Republican attacks on birth control and abortion rights will fire up women Democratic voters in Oregon.  

Tom Gallagher, a business lobbyist in Salem who tends to be closer to Republicans, says it will be tough to topple any of the six new Republican incumbents that won Democrat-held seats last time.

“I don’t know of anything in any of those six that make a legislator particularly vulnerable,” Gallagher says. “I don’t see any races where the challenger stands head and shoulders above the incumbent.”

Gary Conkling, a lobbyist who is closer to the Democrats, says three or four of the seats may be vulnerable, and he foresees the list of hotly contested swing races narrowing quickly to those contests, all in the Portland area. Most vulnerable, Conkling says, are Rep. Matt Wand, R-Troutdale, Rep. Patrick Sheehan, R-Clackamas, Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, and Rep. Katie Eyre, R-Hillsboro.

“They may not be as secure,” Conkling says, based on their legislative performance and other factors.

Redistricting of House and Senate seats following the 2010 Census hurt Sheehan, whose district shifted more into East Portland and got a higher share of registered Democrats. It also helped Democrats’ chances in Bend, as the House district there now includes more of the city and less rural area, due to population growth. Redistricting strengthened the hold of Republicans in the House seat held by state Rep. Bill Kennemer, R-Oregon City.

Topless scandal

One question mark is the impact of scandals, such as the revelation by the Oregonian newspaper that seven House Republicans visited a topless club together in January, while on a golfing excursion to Palm Springs. Wand and Sheehan, two of the freshmen targeted by Democrats, reportedly went to the topless club. Rep. Kevin Cameron, R-Salem, had been leading House Republican fundraising efforts, but resigned from that post, in part out of fears the topless club visit would become public.

Whenever the number of races to determine control of a chamber becomes narrow, inevitably there will be more money spent in those pivotal races, and more odds that a scandal — real or fabricated — could be exploited as a campaign issue.

Republicans haven’t seen that issue come up yet on the campaign trail, Hanna says, but it’s out of their control.

Democrats sound like they won’t be shy about bringing up the issue.

Voters might not care much about the details of the seven lawmakers’ trip to Palm Springs, Kotek says. But they may be concerned about lawmakers going off to play golf shortly before the 2012 legislative session, she says.

While most of the attention is likely to focus on the House, Democrats hold a relatively narrow 16-14 majority in the state Senate, which could end if the GOP gains a seat or two.

Once again, the Portland suburbs are a prime battle ground.

Republicans are targeting state Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, and trying to capture an open seat on the south coast held by a Democrat.

House seats targeted by Democrats (and district party registration)

• Dist. 51, Incumbent Patrick Sheehan, R-Clackamas v. Shemia Fagan, D (38.5% Democrat, 32.4% Republican)

• Dist. 29, Incumbent Katie Eyre, R-Hillsboro v. Ben Unger, D

(38.1% D, 31.6% R)

• Dist. 49, Incumbent Matt Wand, R-Troutdale v. Chris Gorsek, D (41.3% D, 27.8% R)

• Dist. 30, Incumbent Shawn Lindsay, R-Hillsboro v. Joe Gallegos, D (37.1% D, 31.3% R)

• Dist. 52, Incumbent Mark Johnson, R-Hood River v. Peter Nordbye, D (37.6% D, 32.9% R)

• Dist. 54, Incumbent Jason Conger, R-Bend v. Nathan Hovekamp, D (36.5% D, 32.1% R)

• Dist 37, Incumbent Julie Parrish, R-West Linn v. Carl Hosticka, D (37.7% D, 36.9% R)

House seats targeted by Republicans

• Dist. 28, Incumbent Jeff Barker, D-Aloha v. Manuel Casteneda, R (40.6% D, 29.0% R)

• Dist. 40, Open seat to replace Dave Hunt, D-Gladstone;

Brent Barton, D, v. Steve Newgard, R (40.5% D, 31.8% R)

• Dist. 12, Open seat to replace Terry Beyer, D-Springfield;

John Lively, D, v. Joe Pishioneri, R (41.1% D, 28.7% R)

• Dist. 14, Incumbent Val Hoyle, D-Eugene v. Dwight Coon, R (41.0% D, 30.2% R)

• Dist. 22, Incumbent Betty Komp, D-Woodburn v. Kathy LeCompte, R (40.0% D, 29.9% R)

Democrats’ edge slips in party registration

• Multnomah County

Aug. 1, 2012: 53.9% Democrat, 16.2% Republican, 22.9% unaffiliated

Aug. 1, 2010: 56.4% D, 16.9% R, 20.8% unaff.

• Washington County

Aug. 1, 2012: 39.6% D, 31.6% R, 23.3% unaff.

Aug. 1, 2010: 41.1% D, 32.2% R, 22.2% unaff.

• Clackamas

Aug. 1, 2012: 38.1% D, 35.2% R, 20.7% unaff.

Aug. 1, 2010: 40.1% D, 35.6% R, 19.4% unaff.

• Oregon

Aug. 1, 2012: 40.2% D, 31.9% R, 21.5% unaff.

Aug. 1, 2010: 42.2% D, 32.2% Re, 20.2% unaff.

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