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Democratic voters in Washington County played a key role in giving control of the Oregon House of Representatives to their party at the November general election — setting the stage for Gov. John Kitzhaber’s most productive legislative session.

That’s according to analysis of election results presented at the Westside Economic Alliance breakfast forum on Dec. 6. It occurred one month after the election and the day after Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown released the official results.

Democrats picked up four seats in the House at the election, breaking a 30-30 tie during the past two legislative sessions. Two of those seats were in Washington County. There, Democrat Ben Unger decisively defeated incumbent Republican Kate Eyre in the District 29 race. And Democrat Joe Gallegis beat incumbent Republican Shawn Lindsey by a smaller margin in the District 30 race.

The size of Unger’s victory — 1,524 votes — surprised Jim Moore, a Pacific University political science professor who was one of three panelists that discussed the elections at the forum.

“Both Unger and Eyre were good candidates that connected with the voters. Eyre actually got around 700 more votes this year than she got in 2010,” said Moore, director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation.

But according to Moore, about 4,000 more Washington County voters cast ballots in the 2012 general election, and Unger got 82 percent of them. Moore credited Unger’s grassroots organization for the size of his victory.

Moore also said Eyre was hit by voter backlash on a negative mailing against Unger by the Promote Oregon Leadership PAC, the political action committee of the House Republicans. According to Moore, the mailings arrived so early that voters had time to reflect on them and reject their attacks on Unger.

Gallegis beat Lindsey by 1,203 votes. According to Moore, Lindsey lost around 1,500 votes since 2010. That’s slightly more than the 1,441 votes picked up by the third candidate in the race, Libertarian Party nominee Markley Kyle.

Pollster Mike Riley, another panelist, was also surprised by the solidarity of the Democratic vote in Washington County.

“Washington County Democrats voted like Multnomah County Democrats, a straight party ticket,” said Riley, owner of Riley Research Associates.

Not a slam dunk

The other two House seats that switched from Republican to Democrat were District 51 in Clackamas County and District 49 in Multnomah County.

Riley noted that Republicans have historically needed to win Washington County in statewide races to have any chance of victory. No Republicans won statewide in the 2013 general election. Their chances in the future remain grim if Washington County continues voting Democratic, Riley said.

Riley also noted that both Oregon Labor Commissioner candidates were from Washington County and did relatively poorly at the polls. Oregonians cast 1.8 million votes in the Presidential race but only around 1.3 million in the labor commissioner race, which pitted incumbent Brad Avakian against state Sen. Bruce Starr (R-Dist. 15).

“The Washington County all-star team did not do very well statewide,” Moore said.

The switch in the House gives Kitzhaber a Democratic majority in both chambers of the Legislature for the first time in his three terms as governor, noted the final panelist, Jessica Adamson, a consultant with CFM Strategic Communications. Adamson said this will give Kitzhaber his best chance ever to win approval of his legislative agenda.

“It’s not a slam dunk, though,” Adamson said.

Adamson noted that several of Kitzhaber top priorities — including reducing the cost of the Oregon Public Employee Retirement System — are controversial with Democrats. Some PERS reforms are opposed by public employee unions who traditionally support Democrats.

“Kitzhaber is challenging (Democratic) interest group relationships,” Adamson said.

Adamson also said the ability of Democrats to keep control of the U.S. Senate will increase the clout of the region’s senators. Washington Sen. Patty Murray ran the Democratic caucus’ successful re-election efforts, which will give Oregon U.S. Ron Wyden a chance to take advantage of his increased seniority. Oregon’s junior senator, Jeff Merkley, is scoring political points by working to reform the filibuster rules that resulted in gridlock, Adamson said.

The WEA is a public-private organization concerned with livability and economic development issues in Washington and wester Clackamas counties. The monthly breakfast forums are attended by both elected and business leaders. Pamela Treece, the WEA’s new executive director, was also introduced at the Nov. 6 forum.

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