The election is more than a year away, but Democrats and Republicans already are setting the battle lines for which party will control the Oregon Legislature in 2017 and 2018.
The campaign for both parties will focus on what voters think of the Legislature’s record this past session — and the majority party decides who will lead and which bills are priorities.
Control of the House will boil down to a relative few of the 60 seats, and if recent history is a guide, they are in suburbs west, south and east of Portland.
Control of the Senate is less likely to change because virtually all of the 15 seats up this cycle are in Portland-area districts solidly for Democrats or rural districts solidly for Republicans.
But Republicans, the minority in both chambers, are buoyed by the recent announcement by the Republican State Leadership Committee that Oregon campaign efforts will get a share of the $40 million it has budgeted nationally to win or maintain control of state legislative chambers.
“One-party rule has failed our state,” says House Republican Leader Mike McLane of Powell Butte. “It’s time to put Oregon back on a path toward prosperity by restoring the balance of power in our state government.”
But Rep. Jennifer Williamson of Portland, the new Democratic majority leader in the House, says Democrats are happy to run next year on what they did this year — because it’s what they told voters last year they would do.
“The important takeaway from what we did in Oregon started with that campaign,” she said in a national conference call with reporters about what she called “a grand-slam session.”
“Our candidates were all on the same message. We were very disciplined. Working with our allies, no matter who voters were hearing from, they were hearing the same message about how we were going to improve the lives of everyday Oregonians.
“Because we were so disciplined and worked together, we made these priorities, we campaigned on them — and they became law.”
Among those priorities were automatic voter registration, a requirement for paid sick leave, a state-sponsored retirement savings plan, extension of a low-carbon fuel standard, and criminal background checks for most private transfers of firearms. None of these bills got Republican votes, and there were a few Democratic dissenters.
Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli of John Day has a differing view:
“Senate Republicans are ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work electing senators who will protect Oregon’s small businesses and working families from expensive Portland mandates that don’t reflect Oregon values.”
Williamson and lawmakers from Connecticut, Nebraska and Nevada spoke in a call arranged by the State Innovation Exchange (SiX), a nonprofit that aims at being the liberal alternative to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which proposes model legislation from a conservative and free-market stance.
Oregon was singled out in the report by the State Innovation Exchange for the array of bills passed during the 2015 session.
Williamson said many of those bills got some or substantial GOP support.
Legislative Republicans have their work cut out for them to win majorities outright.
The Senate has 18 Democrats and 12 Republicans, a shift of two from 16-14 in 2011-14.
The House has 35 Democrats and 25 Republicans, a shift of one from 2013-14 — and a shift of five from its historic 30-30 tie in 2011-12.
The Democratic gains made Oregon the only state where Democrats added to their legislative majorities in 2014.
Still, the Republican State Leadership Committee has included both Oregon houses among the 13 legislative chambers in 10 states that the GOP wants to win in 2016.
It also will defend majorities in 16 chambers in 14 states.
The GOP committee has spent $140 million in takeover efforts since the 2004 election, slightly more than twice what the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has spent over the same period, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Democrats spend more
But in Oregon in 2014, Democrats generally have spent more on legislative races, according to political action committee reports filed with the secretary of state.
Future PAC, the House Democratic campaign committee, spent $3.1 million; Promote Oregon Leadership PAC, the House Republican committee, spent $1.6 million.
Future PAC got $200,000 from the national Democratic committee, plus another $143,950 from its 527 Public Employee Treasury. Promote Oregon Leadership PAC got $85,000 from the national Republican committee.
The spending was more even between the Senate committees in 2014. But the Senate Democratic Leadership Fund still outspent the (GOP) Leadership Fund in 2014, $1.77 million to $1.56 million. Of those totals, national Democrats contributed $135,875, all from their 527 committee; national Republicans, $160,000, about $75,000 of it from its 527 committee.
The Republican committee also spent $15,000 separately for independent advertising against Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, who was re-elected.