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Local races could tilt power in Salem

Both parties fighting to gain seats in Hillsboro, county


The Hillsboro area could be ground zero in the battle for control of the Oregon House of Representatives this fall.

House Democrats say they hope to retake two Hillsboro House seats that shifted to the GOP during the Republican surge of 2010, now held by Katie Eyre and Shawn Lindsay.

Republicans say they hope to unseat Aloha Democrat Jeff Barker.

The three House races are among a dozen cited by both party’s leaders as pivotal to determining control of the Oregon House of Representatives in November.

Democrats and Republicans each hold House 30 seats and were forced to share power the past two legislative sessions, so a single net gain by either party will give them control of the chamber.

Leaders of both parties say the main battlegrounds figure to be the six seats that shifted from the Democrats to the Republicans in 2010, including the two Hillsboro seats.

“The big races for us are out in Washington County,” says Melissa Unger, executive director of the House Democrats’ campaign arm. She’s referring to District 29, where Democrats have high hopes for challenger Ben Unger — her brother — against Eyre; and District 30, where Democrats are fielding Joe Gallegos against Lindsay.

House Republican leaders say their first priority is playing defense in the two Hillsboro seats plus four others that shifted to the GOP last time.

Beyond that, they hope to get one to two wins in Democrat-held seats, says Nick Smith, executive director of the House Republicans’ campaign arm. Republicans like their chances against Barker by running GOP challenger Manuel Casteneda in a district with a large Hispanic population, says Bruce Hanna, R-Roseburg, co-speaker of the Oregon House the past two sessions.

Portland’s suburbs traditionally dominate the list of swing districts that determine control of the House. Recent trends suggest Democrats’ chances might be better in Washington County, while Republicans could fare better in Clackamas County.

In the past two years, Washington County Democrats have retained their lead over Republicans in registered voters, more so than in Clackamas County or even Multnomah County. The Democrats’ edge over Republicans has slipped statewide the past two years, according to voter registration data from the Oregon Elections Division, but not so in Washington County.

Meanwhile, there are some recent signs that Clackamas County is shifting to the right.

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.

Longtime Washington County Democrat Gary Conkling, a prominent Salem lobbyist, says Rep. Lindsay’s performance in the Legislature could make him a safer bet to retain his seat. Lindsay helped oversee the redrawing of legislative districts following the 2010 Census, and was credited with a bipartisan approach that won the approval of all sides.

Conkling says it appears three or four Republican-held seats may be the most in play this year, including Eyre’s Hillsboro seat. He foresees the list of hotly contested swing races narrowing quickly to those contests, all in the Portland area, including seats held by Eyre, Rep. Matt Wand, R-Troutdale, Rep. Patrick Sheehan, R-Clackamas and Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn.

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

Tom Gallagher, a business lobbyist in Salem who tends to be closer to Republicans, figures it will be tough for Democrats to topple any of the six new Republican incumbents.

“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.”

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 the battle for control of the Oregon Legislature usually begins in earnest after Labor Day.