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Democrats look strong in Metro legislative races

For a variety of reasons, the number of registered voters who are Democrats goes up

Democrats - for the first time in decades - are poised to capture or seriously contest every suburban Portland legislative race this fall, thanks to a surge in voter registration.

Oregon Democrats have added 115,000 registered voters since January, overtaking the GOP in four of the five Republican-leaning House districts in Portland suburbs.

If Democrats capitalize on their new recruits, they can win a 'supermajority' in Salem needed to raise taxes and enact ambitious environmental and other reforms. They also could cement a shift in state political power closer to Portland, Democrats' stronghold.

'The opportunity available for Democrats is enormous,' said lobbyist Alan Tresidder, who represents Nike and other clients. 'If they take advantage of it, I think it will change the political landscape for the next decade.'

Democrats' statewide voter registration has ballooned 15 percent since January, while Republicans have lost 2 percent of their adherents.

In two races that have links to Lake Oswego, the House District 38 race between Democrat Chris Garrett of Lake Oswego and Republican Stephen Griffith of Portland, shows Democrats now have a 17.4 percent edge in the number of registered voters. Similarly, in Congressional District Race 5, pitting Republican Mike Erickson, Lake Oswego, against Canby Democrat Kurt Schrader, the Democrats now hold a 5.2 percent lead in registered voters. In January, Republicans held a slim one percentage-point lead.

Political analysts trace Democrats' gains to several factors: Voters souring on President Bush and the Iraq war; enthusiasm about voting for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the May primary; and aggressive voter-registration drives.

Many of the new Democratic converts are going to 'go home' eventually, predicted Tom Gallagher, lobbyist for the Portland Business Alliance and other clients. 'But I tend to think there's something serious in this,' Gallagher said. 'If these are real long-term voters, it has huge impact.'

Shifting views of nonaffiliated or independent voters may be just as critical to Democratic gains this fall, said lobbyist Gary Conkling, who represents businesses, school districts and other clients. Prevailing independent-voter concerns, such as the Iraq war, shaky economy and health care, 'tend to break awkwardly for Republicans' now, Conkling said.

Conservative Republicans seized control of the Oregon Legislature in the early-1990s largely by capturing suburban Portland swing districts. But now Republican districts are an endangered species in the Portland area.

Since January, GOP-leaning House districts centered in Hillsboro, West Linn/Tigard, Canby/Oregon City and Clackamas have flipped, with registered Democrats now outnumbering their Republican counterparts. To find a GOP district in the Portland area, you have to go all the way to Wilsonville, and Democrats have a decent shot at winning that House seat this year.

Political analysts say Democrats are now poised to make gains in East Multnomah County and Clackamas County, echoing the party's recent gains in Washington County races.

Republicans likely will get 'shut out' of Washington County legislative races this fall, Conkling predicted. 'It's not inconceivable that they'll get shut out in Clackamas County,' he said.

Political insiders from both parties predict Democrats will pad their 31-29 House majority in fall races. Republicans are widely expected to pick up one Senate seat, but that still leaves Democrats with an 18-12 majority in that chamber.

If Democrats can get to 36 House members, that gives them the 60 percent supermajority needed to pass tax increases without any Republican votes.

House Majority Leader Dave Hunt, D-Gladstone, the odds-on favorite to be next House speaker, said Democrats aren't likely to seek or win universal health care, a gas-tax increase or overhaul of Oregon's tax system in the 2009 legislative session. But Democrats are in good shape to pass less sweeping proposals that eluded them in 2007, he said, such as:

n A cigarette tax increase to provide health care for children

n Higher car-license fees to fund transportation improvements

n Funding more affordable housing via increased fees on real estate document recording

n Support for stem cell research

n Raising the corporate-minimum tax

Political analysts speculate that many of the new Democrats aren't loyal to the party yet. They note that many Democrats voted for Obama or Clinton but left their ballots blank when it came to House races and other 'down-ticket' contests.

But Democrats, unions, environmental groups and others now have lists of new voters and money to target them. Those voters can expect a barrage of mailers, phone calls and other political outreach.

Experts say the most reliable indicator of a party's success in legislative races is voter registration. But strong candidates can overcome disparities in voter affiliation.

Former House Speaker Karen Minnis, R-Wood Village, prevailed repeatedly in a district where Democrats have a numerical advantage.

Those East Multnomah County voters haven't really changed their views on taxes and other policies, said Republican political consultant Chuck Adams.

Yet Democrats now lead Republicans in that district by 15 percentage points, up from nearly 10 percentage points in January.

Some Democratic gains have come via demographic shifts, such as newcomers to Hillsboro lured by Intel jobs, or Portlanders buying homes in North Clackamas. Rep. Linda Flores, R-Clackamas, has been watching Democratic gains with trepidation. Her district is one of the four suburban House districts that shifted this year from a Republican edge to a Democratic advantage.

'Even outside the metro area, in other parts of the state, we've seen the same phenomena occur,' Flores said. 'We're watching things very carefully.'

But when she goes door to door, Flores said, she isn't seeing any change in peoples' views on issues like taxes.

Her Democratic challenger, attorney Brent Barton, is seeing change afoot when he goes door to door. 'I'm noticing a lot of new registrants and new participants in the political process,' Barton said. 'I feel like we are in uncharted territory.'

Gallagher said Democrats have a good shot at picking up Republican seats held by three House members not seeking re-election: Minnis' seat in the Gresham area, the seat held by Patti Smith of Corbett, and the seat vacated Aug. 1 by Jerry Krummel of Wilsonville.

House Republican Leader Bruce Hanna, R-Roseburg, said his goal is to retain all 29 GOP seats, and try to pick up a seat or two in Hillsboro. But Hanna's prospects dimmed when Jeff Duyck was ruled ineligible in Hillsboro's District 29, because it turned out he didn't live in the district. And Hanna was unable to recruit another Republican candidate in the Wilsonville seat besides Matt Wingard, who many think is beatable in that district.

Retaining the Karen Minnis and Patti Smith seats is 'going to be tough,' Hanna conceded. And Democratic registration gains in the districts held by Flores and Rep. John Lim, R-Gresham, will make those races 'barn-burners,' Hanna said.

Gains by Democrats in the 2004 and 2006 elections, and the impending departure of Republican leaders like Minnis and former House Republican Leader Wayne Scott, R-Canby, cause many to view Democrats on the rise and Republicans on a downward slide. That's giving Democrats an edge in both candidate recruitment and fundraising.

The House Republican political action committee, Promote Oregon Leadership PAC, has raised $342,000 this year, but has a cash balance of only $70,000.

The House Democratic counterpart, Future PAC, has raised $572,000 this year and is sitting on $627,000 in cash.

That gives Democrats a better shot at capitalizing on their new registration gains.

'The House Democrats are clearly leveraging their majority in terms of fundraising from lobbyists and special interests,' said Nick Smith, spokesman for the House Republicans' PAC.

Hanna was blunt about his challenges. 'Fundraising is very difficult from the side of the wall we're looking at; it's a tall order,' he said.

Hunt said some business groups that once gave most of their money to Republicans, such as the grocery industry, now are shifting some of their funds to Democrats.

'You want to go for winners,' Tresidder said. 'People like me see the handwriting on the wall. It would seem prudent to give money to Democrats and give less to Republicans.'