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State races catch national attention

Campaigns expect to spend big money for Legislature control


Both major presidential contenders are spending little time or money in Oregon so far, so some expect the tussle for control of the Oregon House to get the most national attention for the state, in what figures to be a record-shattering year for campaign spending. 

Collectively, 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 a power shift control in a state legislative chamber.

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

House Republicans are “upside down” in the six new districts they wrested from Democrats in 2010, with more registered Democrats than Republicans, says state Rep. Bruce Hanna, R-Roseburg, the co-speaker of the Oregon House the past two sessions. They’ll largely focus on playing defense, he says.

Democrats like their prospects of winning back some of those six seats, as they expect voter turnout could be about 10 percentage points higher than in 2010, with Obama on the top of the ticket. Generally, higher voter turnout benefits Democrats.

Democrats also will focus on taking a seventh seat in West Linn, says Melissa Unger, executive director of the House Democrats’ campaign arm.

Obama carried all seven of the Democrats’ targeted 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.”

Democrats likely won’t 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 in public schools.

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

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. Representative Matt Wand, R-Troutdale, and Patrick Sheehan, R-Clackamas, 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 leaving town to play golf shortly before the 2012 legislative session, she says.