SALEM, Ore. — Repeatedly thwarted by Republicans and a conservative Democrat in the Senate, environmentalists, gun control activists and others on the left hope this year's legislative elections will finally give them their ticket to success in the Legislature.
Sen. Betsy Johnson, a conservative Democrat from Scappoose who's willing to buck her party and its interest groups, has joined with Republicans on several key votes to deprive advocates of their needed Senate majority.
"Time and again, priority legislation for the environmental community has lost 15-15," said Doug Moore, director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters. "In order to change that, we have to change the dynamic of votes in the Senate."
Moore doesn't single out Johnson for blame, noting that "any one of those 15 could have stepped up at any point." But her position is particularly frustrating for groups on the left that insist the Senate's other 15 Democrats are with them, along with the more liberal House and Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber.
Among the measures Johnson is blamed — or celebrated — for blocking: an extension of Oregon's low-carbon fuel standard, gun control measures requiring background checks for private sales, and an effort to use driver's license records to automatically register thousands of new voters. She's also blamed for killing an effort to use unclaimed damages from class-action lawsuits to provide lawyers for the poor.
Even Howard Dean, a former presidential candidate and Democratic National Committee chairman, weighed in on Johnson's vote on the registration measure. Dean tweeted a link to a story about the vote and wrote, "We need a new Senator." In the end, though, no Democrats or Republicans signed up to challenge her.
Jake Weigler, a spokesman for the Oregon Alliance to Prevent Gun Violence, said advocates across the state "are working to elect more senators that will support common-sense steps to keep guns out of the hands of criminals."
If the Democrats pick up a single seat, it will have a profound effect, said Kevin Starrett, a lobbyist for the gun rights group Oregon Firearms Federation. "I don't think there's anybody who underestimates how tight this situation is on that side of the building."
Johnson, who represents Oregon's rural, blue-collar northwestern corner, said it's impossible to speculate on what might happen if her party expands its Senate majority.
"My approach to legislation has been to read the bills, to understand the issues," Johnson said. "I mean really understand them, not the gross simplification that happened in some of the press. Then make a decision guided by the values of my district and guided by my own internal compass as a native Oregonian."
Sixteen of the Senate's 30 seats are on the ballot this year, but only a handful of races are likely to be competitive. Liberals may be able to get their crucial 16th vote if they can win both of the top two races — for seats now held by Democratic Sen. Alan Bates, of Medford, and Republican Sen. Betsy Close, of Albany — without losing others.
Bates faces a rematch of his razor-thin 2010 victory over Dave Dotterrer. Close faces Democratic Rep. Sara Gelser, of Corvallis, in a district that favors Democrats.
Both parties have their eyes on a handful of other seats, too. Democrats think they have a shot against Sens. Bruce Starr of Hillsboro, Alan Olsen of Canby, and Chuck Thomsen of Hood River. Republicans have drawn a big target on Senate President Peter Courtney and have recruited a longtime county commissioner to run against him.
The Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group that works to help the GOP pick up legislative seats, said last week that Oregon's House and Senate are both on its list of 16 top-targeted Democratic legislative chambers, although most observers agree that controlling the House is a longshot for the GOP. The group wouldn't say how much it plans to spend in Oregon.
Jill Bader, a spokeswoman, pointed to the Bates-Dotterrer race as a "great GOP pickup opportunity" in the Senate.
The group's counterpart on the left, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, also is likely to get involved.
"We're confident that not only are we going to hold both the Senate and the House, I think we have opportunities to pick up, particularly in the Senate," said Michael Sargeant, the DLCC's executive director.