The perfect storm of policy and personality could collide in Oregon’s Republican Senate candidate Monica Wehby, the pediatric neurosurgeon who has the GOP high on their chances against Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley in the traditionally blue state.
Merkley’s not a top target for Republicans yet. But with the state’s insurance exchanges encountering some of the worst problems of any state nationwide, Wehby could be their answer if she makes it through her primary. That could make Oregon the GOP’s 13th opportunity for offense, as the party seeks the six seats it needs to take back the Senate this fall.
She gained national attention this past week for an emotionally gripping ad that featured a former patient of hers recounting how Wehby saved her infant daughter, a spot widely praised as one of the best of the cycle, and one that both highlighted her unique background and softened her abortion views.
Wehby’s gotten support from the GOP establishment, headlining a National Republican Senatorial Committee fundraiser and drawing contributions from the likes of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). And she’s nabbed big-name conservative endorsements, including from physician Ben Carson and 2012 GOP presidential contender Newt Gingrich.
Still, Wehby’s candidacy isn’t a sure thing.
An Oregonian report out this week highlighted a controversy over her surgical practices, which could be used by opponents to try to tarnish her profile.
And the centrism that makes Wehby so attractive in the general election in Oregon is part of what’s made her a target in the GOP primary.
There, she’s facing Jason Conger, a respected state representative, who’s pointed to Wehby’s stance on social issues as evidence he’d be a stronger candidate in the general.
“Especially for a challenger running against an incumbent, it’s actually more important to contrast with your opponent. It’s very clear that I offer a much more easily understood and easily communicated contrast with the incumbent,” Conger told The Hill.
Greg Leo, executive director of the Oregon Republican Party, said the primary fight is emblematic of a wider debate going on within the state GOP.
“Oregon Republicans are very much committed to our party platform, and we stand by conservative positions on social issues. But we’d also like to nominate a candidate that can win, and we’re aware that sometimes those positions don’t align with the general electorate,” he said.
It’s still unclear where the two candidates stand in the primary with only scant polling available. The last survey, from Merkley’s campaign, showed a tight race, with Conger taking 24 percent to Wehby’s 22 percent.
But that was before Wehby used her fundraising advantage — she had nearly $742,000 cash on hand at the end of March, while Conger had just $89,000 — to go on air while Conger has still been dark.
She’s also got the backing of two outside groups that have run TV ads touting her candidacy. One group, founded by GOP consultant Alex Castellanos, launched two TV ads and a radio ad this week, pitching her to female voters and calling her an “independent conservative.”
But another could give her a bit of a headache. It’s funded by an Oregon lumber magnate with reported romantic ties to Wehby, and a Nevada billionaire known for his support for an assisted-suicide ballot measure in the state and his hobby as an amateur sex hypnotist.
But the support is likely to be more of a boon in the primary, helping to boost her name ID throughout the state.
Conger faces a significant hurdle in the primary: his vote in favor of creating the state’s insurance exchange, Cover Oregon. The state voted to abandon the site in favor of the federal exchange last week, after persistent glitches made it essentially unworkable.
Conger says he would’ve done things differently if he had known what a mess the exchange would be.
And he charges that Wehby has been on both sides of the issue, pointing to comments she made months ago that it’s “not politically viable” to repeal the law, while promising in a recent ad to “fight to repeal and replace ObamaCare.”
Indeed, her unclear stance on the law has dogged her throughout the primary, sparking a Huffington Post report highlighting her apparent shift, and contributing to local alternative-weekly Willamette Week’s choice to endorse Conger in the primary.
“On [the ObamaCare] question, Wehby is all over the map. … A former Oregon Medical Association president, Wehby waffled endlessly when she tried to describe which parts of major health-care reform she might have supported in the past,” the editorial board said in its endorsement.
But Wehby spokesman Charlie Pearce argues the candidate’s statements on ObamaCare have been consistent, and she’s ultimately the only one in the race with any credibility on healthcare reform.
“Monica’s the only candidate that’s actually been working to oppose this law from the beginning,” he told The Hill.
Indeed, Conger’s votes for the exchange could complicate the GOP’s ability to take advantage of discontent over ObamaCare in the general election if he wins the nomination.
Regardless of the outcome of the primary, however, Democrats insist they’re not worried about Merkley, pointing to the support he enjoys from progressive groups like MoveOn.org.
The senator does, however, seem to be ramping up his campaign, releasing an internal poll showing him topping 50 percent against both Republicans and bringing in Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to campaign and fundraise for him.
—This piece has been updated to clarify Wehby's stance on gay marriage.