Can Republicans take control of Oregon Senate?

Republicans hoping high turnout will trump Dems’ registration edge

By Taylor W. Anderson / The Bulletin / @taylorwanderson

Seats in play

Senate (Republicans need one to tie)

SD 3: Toss-up, currently Democratic

SD 8: Toss-up, currently Republican

SD 11: Leans Democratic, currently Democratic

SD 15: Leans Republican, currently Republican

SD 20: Toss-up, currently Republican

SD 26: Leans Republican, currently Republican

House (Republicans need four to tie)

HD 20: Toss-up, currently Republican

HD 22: Toss-up, currently Democratic

HD 23: Leans Republican, open seat

HD 29: Toss-up, open seat

HD 30: Toss-up, currently Democratic

HD 37: Leans Republican, currently Republican

HD 40: Leans Democratic, currently Democratic

HD 51: Leans Democratic, currently Democratic

HD 52: Leans Republican, currently Republican

HD 54: Leans Republican, open seat

Source: Interviews with Democratic and Republican party leaders; Bulletin review of 2010 and 2012 election results and shifts in voter registration.

SALEM — Oregon Democrats are confident they can hold majorities in both houses of the state Legislature next session, despite the fact that they were a few hundred votes from sharing control of the Senate with Republicans during the election cycle four years ago.

Party leaders say they’ve singled out vulnerable Republican senators ahead of the November election, and they hope to build on their one-seat Senate majority and four-seat lead in the House.

Both parties can look at past elections, voter registration shifts and internal polling to predict what the next Legislature could look like. And while both parties have identified key close races, guessing how a growing number of Independent and unaffiliated voters will vote in November leaves plenty of room for error on both sides.

Tom Powers, executive director of the Senate Democratic Leadership Fund, says the party has only one weak spot in the Senate: Alan Bates, D-Medford.

“(Bates) is our top contentious seat to hold a majority,” Powers said. “Then the question becomes how many seats on the Republican side do we pick up?”

Powers said the party is targeting Republican Sens. Bruce Starr, R-Hillsboro, Alan Olsen, R-Canby, and Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River, as potential pickups.

The race for District 8 between Sen. Betsy Close, R-Albany, and Rep. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, is also considered a toss-up. Gelser is giving up her seat in the House to challenge Close, who hasn’t faced an election after she was appointed to the seat in 2012.

Michael Gay, a spokesman for the state senate Republicans, laid out the Republicans’ prime target: longtime Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem.

“If you go back and look at this election last time, it was a token candidate who didn’t have much money and they got within striking distance of (Courtney),” Gay said.

Courtney has been Senate president for more than a decade.

Oregon Republicans typically come out in stronger numbers during non-presidential election years, so party leaders will look to turn out voters in stronger numbers than in 2010, when Oregon Democrats retained control of the Senate and a tie in the House while the rest of the country elected conservative candidates in huge numbers.

Republicans also hope to find support from Oregon’s growing number of unaffiliated voters. Nearly every district has enough voters who don’t register with either of the two major parties to cover the gap between the number of Democrats and Republicans in Oregon.

“They can swing an election either way,” Gay said. “It’s what makes these seats that look like they’ve got a Democratic advantage, it’s what makes them winnable for us.”

Len Bergstein, an Oregon political analyst, said while unaffiliated voters and Independent voters make predicting close races difficult, the Republicans have a slim chance of winning four or more seats in the House.

“Is there a chance that control could change?” Bergstein asked. “I would have to say it’s really a long shot for Republicans.”

Instead, Bergstein said, the party should hope to at least chip away at the Democrats’ majority in the House.

Members of the Independent Party of Oregon vote every election cycle on which candidates the minor party will nominate. Despite its small numbers, party leaders say members’ votes are a good bellwether for what could happen in the general election.

“Two years ago when the Democrats did well in our election process, all of those candidates went on to do very well in the general election. Only one of them lost,” Independent Party Secretary Sal Peralta said.

— Reporter: 406-589-4347, tanderson@bendbulletin.com