PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — With voters scared about the economy and sour on incumbents, Oregon Democrats are at risk of losing their supermajority in the state Legislature. | More Campaign 2010 News
If Republicans pick up just one House or Senate seat in November, it will cost Democrats the three-fifths majority that empowered them to do such things as pass a tax on hospitals and insurers to pay for expanded health coverage for 80,000 children. That bill squeaked through the House on a party-line vote, though the hospitals and insurers had agreed to the tax.
It was just two years ago that Democrats solidified their supermajority by winning 36 of 60 seats in the House and securing 18 of 30 in the Senate. It is unlikely that Democrats will lose enough seats to cede majority control of either chamber to the Republicans. But interviews with strategists from both sides point to at least 16 hotly contested legislative races that could rewrite the power equation in Salem.
Republicans, who were demoralized after losing control of the House in 2006, say the political climate favors their candidates and issues.
Unemployment is high. Businesses are angry about tax increases. And the next state budget is $3 billion short.
"If there's ever a time to shake things up, it's now," says Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day.
Meanwhile, Democratic legislative leaders are tamping down expectations.
Speaking with reporters recently about the upcoming election, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, used the word "if" when talking about the Democrats' supermajority.
"Look out," he said. "It's going to be interesting."
House Speaker Dave Hunt, D-Gladstone, acknowledged that Democrats could lose as many as three House seats. Or, he said, Democrats could gain as many as four.
"There's no question there are challenges of incumbency," Hunt said, adding that Republican incumbents have their challenges, too.
House Minority Leader Bruce Hanna, R-Roseburg, admits he's paying "close attention" to a couple of his incumbents' tough races. But Hanna says he's also optimistic that the Republicans will pick up seats this year.
"Normally at this time in the election cycle, we might be talking about which races to eliminate from the plan," he said. "This year, it's exactly the opposite. We're talking about which ones have the horsepower to move up."
With a few exceptions, the candidates in the most competitive races are fairly evenly matched in fundraising and spending.
Political action committees controlled by Democratic House and Senate leaders have so far raised about $2 million, giving them a slight edge over Republican leadership committees, which have raised about $1.6 million.
As in past elections, Democrats are getting strong support from labor unions and health care groups. Republicans are getting a boost from agricultural and business groups who were fired up by the Democrats' support of Measures 66 and 67, which increased business and personal income taxes on high earners.
Much to some people's surprise, the Senate Republicans "Leadership Fund" got a $375,000 contribution last month from Loren Parks, the Nevada businessman who owns a medical device company in Oregon.
Parks has been a somewhat controversial figure in Oregon politics. He helped bankroll Measure 11, the 1994 initiative that boosted violent crime sentences, and has given about $13 million since to conservative causes championed by Salem lawyer and former legislator Kevin Mannix.
In an e-mail to The Oregonian, Parks explains he wrote the check to the Senate Republicans in order to protect Measure 11. "The supermajority would like to gut it and they can do it," he wrote.
Senate Majority Leader Richard Devlin, a Tualatin Democrat who is in his own hotly contested race this year, said taking Parks' money could backfire for Republicans.
"Mr. Parks has been sending significant money into Oregon for some time but not for good causes," Devlin said. "It reflects on the values and positions of the caucus that is accepting it."
Ferrioli responded that Parks' contribution isn't "any more tainted than union dues collected in Oregon and forwarded cheerfully to labor groups that support Democrats."
No one disputes that the state Senate races are a lot more interesting this year than anybody expected. Last week on its blog rating state legislative races, Governing magazine rated the Oregon House as a "Likely D" but downgraded the Oregon Senate to a "Lean D."
Governing noted Chris Dudley's candidacy "gives the GOP its best chance for winning the governorship in almost three decades... (That) combined with the national Republican lean, puts the Oregon Senate newly in play, though the GOP would have to essentially run the table to flip the chamber."
Oregon Democrats must also counter national historic trends. Since 1900, the party in the White House has lost state legislative seats every election except 1934 and 2002, said Tim Storey, an elections analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
With ballots arriving in voters' mailboxes this week, strategists from both sides agree turnout will be key for legislative candidates.
In Oregon, registered Democratic voters still outnumber Republicans by more than 200,000. Oregon also has more than 520,000 voters — out of a total of 2 million — who belong to a third party or are not affiliated with any party.
"We've been working hard...I'm not taking anything for granted," said Devlin, the Senate Democratic leader.
Both sides can do all the polling they want, he adds. "But the people who decide an election are the ones who cast their ballots."
Information from: The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.