- Associated Press - Saturday, October 25, 2014

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Voters in Medford, Ashland, Corvallis and Albany have an unusually large amount of power in next month’s election.

Those cities form the core of two ultra-competitive state Senate districts that will help determine whether the Democrats can hold onto their control of the Oregon Legislature.

A number of competitive districts in the House are also up for grabs, but Republicans face a much tougher hurdle to grab the majority there. So all eyes are on two incumbents in the Senate: Democrat Alan Bates of Medford and Republican Betsy Close of Albany.

Spending by the candidates has already topped $1 million in each of those races, and that doesn’t count the money spent by independent groups. Several other races are also drawing big spending.

“I think it’s going to be a close one, and it’ll be down to a thousand votes like it always does in this district,” said Bates, a doctor who’s twice won by close margins in his district stretching from Medford to the California border. “It’s just that kind of a district, split right down the middle.”

At stake is the Democrats’ 16-14 majority. Interest groups on the left are fighting aggressively to help Democrats not only keep their majority but pick up at least one seat.

A 17th Democratic seat might marginalize centrist Democratic Sen. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose, who has repeatedly used her swing vote to stand in the way of liberal priorities from gun control to environmental regulations to voting rights.

Bates is facing a rematch of his 2010 race against Republican Dave Dotterrer, a retired Army colonel who lost by just 275 votes out of 50,000 cast. Voter registration records show the district is nearly evenly divided between Republicans, Democrats and minor-party or no-party voters.

With Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber favored to win his re-election race, the Senate races may be the GOP’s best hope of getting a foothold on state government.

Dotterrer said he’s conscious of the pressure on him for Republicans trying to expand their influence, but he’s not paying much attention to it.

“I’m focused on winning this for Southern Oregon, because I think it’s the best thing for Southern Oregon,” he said.

Close is being challenged by Democratic Rep. Sara Gelser of Corvallis. The candidates are emblematic of the vast ideological divide in their district. Close, from conservative Albany, was appointed to the seat after a more moderate Republican retired. Gelser has represented Corvallis, a liberal college town, in the House for four terms.

Democrats are also mounting a strong challenge against Republican Sen. Bruce Starr of Hillsboro, and the GOP hopes to make Senate President Peter Courtney of Salem sweat.

On the House side, Republicans are trying to chip away at Democrats’ 34-26 majority, but they’re unlikely to get the five-seat swing they’ll need to overtake the majority. The battleground is playing out in a handful of perennially competitive districts in the Portland suburbs, as well as one in Bend and another in Salem.

In a bit of irony, Republicans have attacked Democrats over cuts made to pension benefits for public employees. Those 2013 cuts were made after years of pleading by Republicans.

The next Legislature will tackle a new two-year budget at a time when steady economic recovery is creating a slight uptick in state revenue. Lawmakers also will decide on the future of the failed Cover Oregon health insurance website.

Various interest groups also are likely to push for stricter gun control, mandatory paid leave for workers and an extension of Oregon’s low carbon fuel standard.

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