Oregon is not considered a battleground in the Presidential election. President Obama is strongly favored to win the state’s seven electoral votes. What’s more, Democrats also hold every single statewide office in Oregon and far outnumber Republicans in terms of voter registration. But there’s an exception to the one-party dominance: The Oregon House is evenly divided. 30 Democrats to 30 Republicans. And both parties are hard at work in legislative battlegrounds to swing the majority in their direction.
While the Oregon House has been tied 30-30, Democrats and Republicans have been quick to congratulate themselves for working across the aisle to avoid partisan gridlock. But it’s clear that neither party wants to repeat that. So they’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in districts like Hillsboro: a sprawling suburb on the westside of Portland.
But you don’t have to go far to find agricultural land, like the century-old berry farm where Ben Unger grew up.
Unger, a Democrat, is running for the Oregon House seat currently held by Republican Katie Eyre. She was one of nine Republicans elected to the chamber for the first time in 2010, a big Republican year across the nation. Six of those GOP freshman, including Eyre, won seats previously held by Democrats.
Unger would like to put the seat back in the “D” column.
“I look at the last session as a total failure, because everybody got along because no one tried to do anything,” he says. “And when you have a House that’s split 30-30 with no leadership and no majority, people will be happy to get along and not do anything and then pretend like they got something done and try to get re-elected.”
Naturally, Eyre, the incumbent, has a different take on the 2011 legislative session. She says Republicans like her helped hold the line on spending and got a package of education bills approved.
But Eyre knows how critical her seat is if the GOP has any chance of holding off the Democrats’ complete one-party rule in Salem.
“Any party that gets the majority stands a greater chance of having a Speaker that’s more aligned with their values for the issues we’re facing,” she says. “And the importance of that then is getting control of the committees and managing the agenda that goes forward.”
If Republicans do win at least one more seat, there’s a good chance the new House Speaker would be Bruce Hanna. He says winning control of the chamber would be a big step for the GOP. But he knows what a challenge that is for Republicans.
“We hold six seats in the state of Oregon where the registration advantage is to the other side. They hold no seats where the registration advantage is ours. So when you look at it through that lens, our message has been received well by Oregonians.”
If Democrats do win a 31st seat in the Oregon House, it’s most likely going to be Tina Kotek at the gavel. The leader of the Democratic caucus says that would give her party the power to set the legislative agenda.
“We believe that the majority matters here in the capitol. The individuals who are committee chairs and the type of priorities that are front and center in committees.”
Of course, there’s always a chance that after the ballots are counted, the House will once again be tied. But that’s not likely.
“The chances are pretty low,” says political scientist Jim Moore. He has an up close view of the hard-fought Hillsboro race. His classroom at Pacific University is in the district.
Moore says in House races statewide, you have to give the edge to Democrats. That’s because of all those freshman Republicans seeking a second term.
“They’re more vulnerable than they will ever be on their defense. And so we’re expecting some of them to lose.”
Moore says the key to winning for many legislative candidates will be to ensure as many of their supporters as possible cast a ballot.
And that could be tough in an election year when Oregon voters aren’t getting much attention from the presidential campaigns.
Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network