Observers of the Portland mayor's race have whined about campaign tactics this year. But running for City Hall is like sipping high tea at the Heathman Hotel compared with the brass-knuckle tactics in the battle for control of the Oregon House.

House campaign advertising features unborn babies, scary criminals and smears by association. Democratic advertising links Republicans to tax credit-grubbing fat cats, presidential candidate Mitt Romney and strip joints. Republicans link Democrats to budget-busting public employee unions and Portland mayoral candidate Rep. Jefferson Smith (D-East Portland).

Today, the Oregon House is split in a historic 30-30 tie, and control by either party after the Nov. 6 election will determine the fate of Gov. John Kitzhaber's agenda, including ongoing school and health-care reforms, and a push to rewrite the state's tax system.

The parties' struggle for both the House and Senate is always fraught, but the tie in the House and other factors have made the 2012 races more fierce—and expensive—than usual.

And the battle is centered in the suburbs of Portland, where five freshman Republicans are fighting to survive in districts with a Democratic edge in voter registration.

Voters from Hillsboro to Happy Valley, and from Tualatin to Fairview are seeing mailers and TV spots that rip one candidate or the other. 

"We're seeing scurrilous tactics," says veteran lobbyist Len Bergstein.

The intensity of the campaigns signal that the stakes are enormous.

The speaker names committee chairs, who decide what bills get heard, and controls the flow of bills.

And any tax measure has to originate in the House—giving the speaker outsized influence over what course tax reform might take.

Both caucuses are spending money at a record pace. The House Democratic caucus has already eclipsed the $2 million it spent in 2010. Republicans have also topped the $1.3 million they spent that year, when they picked up six seats.

Republicans are trying to get an edge by bringing up a 2009 measure, House Bill 3508, which shortened prison sentences for some criminals. Democrats who pushed the measure through say the bill helped trim prison spending at a time when the state's revenues were falling dramatically.

But that explanation gets glossed over in campaign attacks aimed at portraying Democrats as soft on crime.

“Republicans are making a lot of hay on the 3508 vote,” says GOP political consultant Rob Kremer. “It’s very effective.” 

For their part, Democrats are first making sure voters know the Republicans are Republicans—particularly in the closely contested metro-area districts where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans.

To make matters worse for the Republican incumbents, lawmakers redrew districts last year (as they are required to do every decade). In two key districts, the result left GOP rookies with fewer Republican voters.

That especially matters in a presidential election year: In the past two presidential contests, turnout has been 15 percentage points higher than in a midterm election year, a phenomenon Democrats think will help them. 

Blaming the GOP for inadequate school funding and for pushing tax breaks for corporations has been the Democratic approach.

"I don't think you have to work so hard to emphasize how the incumbents haven't done much to fund education," says Jared Mason-Gere, a spokesman for the House Democrats. "For us, it's all about jobs and education this time."

Republicans handed Democrats an especially potent weapon earlier this year. 

Seven GOP House members—including two metro-area first-termers—hit a strip club during a three-day golfing vacation to Palm Springs in January. 

One vulnerable incumbent who went on the outing, Rep. Patrick Sheehan (R-Clackamas), is depicted in an independent group's TV ads with his eyes popping out like one of Tex Avery's cartoon wolves as he patronizes a strip club.

Bergstein, who has seen his share of rough campaign seasons, says the attack ads will have some effect on voters' opinions. But, he says, in legislative races, winners are often decided by more traditional methods.

"What it's really going to come down to on Election Day," Bergstein says, "is blocking and tackling—who can get their voters out.” 

Six Races That Will Shake the House

The Oregon House stands at a 30-30 tie between Republicans and Democrats. But Democrats see a chance to take control in this election by targeting five incumbent GOP freshman legislators and one open seat in the Portland area. Both political parties are zinging negative ads, as are outside organizations, such as Oregon Right to Life, and independent expenditure groups. In a couple of cases, redistricting has helped the
Democrats' chances. Here are the races most likely to decide control of the House:

House District 29
(Hillsboro, Forest Grove and Cornelius)

Oregon Right to Life papered the district with mailers featuring its old standby, pictures of an unborn fetus, to highlight the pro-choice position of Democrat Ben Unger. GOP Rep. Katie Eyre, an accountant, hired a Texas campaign consultant who's digging his spurs into Unger, himself a political consultant, accusing him of being a carpetbagger who's never held a real job. Republicans sent Unger (and voters) a "happy anniversary card," noting it had been a year since Unger rented an apartment and moved back into the district. (He actually grew up there.)

Democrats' registration advantage: 7 points.

Change since 2010: Down 1.

House District 30

Democrats have hammered GOP Rep. Shawn Lindsay, an intellectual-property lawyer, for traveling to China on the public dime and for chairing Mitt Romney's statewide campaign (no Dems did that). Lindsay's opponent, retired college professor Joe Gallegos, has never run before and therefore doesn't have many easily exploited vulnerabilities.

Democrats' registration advantage: 6 points.

Change since 2010: Up 1.

House District 37 

Republicans have a target-rich opponent in Democrat Carl Hosticka, who seeks to unseat first-term Rep. Julie Parrish. Hosticka served in the House six terms representing Eugene and spent the past 12 years as a councilor for Metro—which might as well be the Taliban in parts of this district. Democrats have blasted Parrish for her support of online charter schools and for a bizarre robo-calling campaign aimed at inactive voters.

Democrats' registration advantage: 1 point.

Change since 2010: None

House District 40
(Gladstone and parts of Milwaukie and Oregon City)

Republicans have smacked Democratic candidate Brent Barton for supporting a 2009 bill to shorten some prison sentences. They also tagged him as soft on crime for continuing to support mayoral candidate Jefferson Smith after reports Smith punched a woman 19 years ago. Democrats have pilloried Barton's opponent, building contractor Steve Newgard, for failing to pay his property taxes on time. "District 40 might be the nastiest race," says House Republicans spokesman Nick Smith.

Democrats' registration advantage: 8 points.

Change since 2010: Down 9.

House District 49
(Troutdale, Wood Village and Fairview)

With a big registration edge, Democrats should own this seat. Dems have noted that first-term incumbent Matt Wand (R-Troutdale) took big checks from the banking industry and voted for tax cuts for corporations and millionaires. Republicans have called challenger Chris Gorsek soft on crime and weak on school funding—despite his work experience as a former cop and current instructor at Mt. Hood Community College.

Democrats' registration advantage: 14 points.

Change since 2010: Down 1

House District 51

(Clackamas and parts of Happy Valley)

Rep. Pat Sheehan was one of seven GOP members who made a highly publicized January visit to a California strip joint—as an eye-popping TV ad paid for by unknown donors through independent expenditures reminds voters. Sheehan's opponent, first-time candidate Shemia Fagan, is feeling the heat from Oregon Right to Life, which, as in the House District 29 race, delivered mailers with pictures of fetuses to attack Fagan for her support of women's reproductive rights.

Democrats' registration advantage: 6 points.

Change since 2010: Up 3.