WASHINGTON — With the matchup now set for November’s Senate race, both candidates face the daunting task of raising the money needed to sustain a congressional campaign.
Republican nominee Monica Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon from Portland, won the primary in part on the strength of her fundraising. She raised $1.2 million, almost four times as much as the $340,000 raised by her main rival, state Rep. Jason Conger, R-Bend.
Wehby spent $850,000 during the primary, leaving her with $350,000 cash-on-hand heading into November’s general election, according to campaign filings. Incumbent Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who faced only token opposition in the primary, has $3.7 million on hand, more than 10 times more than Wehby.
Jim Moore, an assistant professor of politics and government at Pacific University in Forest Grove, said that although $1.2 million in contributions is an impressive-sounding number, there have been campaigns for the Oregon Legislature in which both candidates have spent more than $1 million each. Wehby probably will need to raise $10 million total to mount a competitive race against an incumbent, he said.
“The pace of raising money she showed from last fall to the primary shows that it’s going to be difficult for her to do that unless she can excite national groups,” including pro-business political action committees and those geared toward securing a Republican majority in the Senate, to mobilize for her, he said.
One fundraising channel Wehby has been able to successfully tap has been her fellow physicians. According to Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-D.C.-based watchdog organization that monitors money in politics, health professionals have been the top donor category for Wehby to date, with contributions totaling almost $81,000.
Merkley, who has been a candidate longer than Wehby, has collected more than $113,000 from health professionals. As a category, they rank seventh in contributions to Merkley, behind lawyers, retirees, leadership PACs, securities and investment brokers, real estate professionals and lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In 2014, Wehby has raised more money from doctors than Merkley, according to a Bulletin analysis of campaign filings. During the first quarter, 95 doctors, roughly half from Oregon and roughly half from out of state, gave Wehby a total of $53,000. The following month, 30 doctors contributed $14,350.
Merkley, whose wife, Marie, is a nurse, raised $31,245 from doctors in the first quarter, and an additional $14,250 in April. The vast majority of the doctors who gave to Merkley live in Oregon.
In outraising Merkley among doctors, Wehby bucked a national trend in which doctors have started recently to contribute more to Democratic candidates. A new study published by the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that campaign contributions have shifted dramatically from Republicans to Democrats.
More doctors gave to Republicans than Democrats during every campaign cycle from 1992 to 2006, according to the study. But in 2008 and 2012, contributions to Democrats outpaced those to Republicans.
Adjusting for inflation, the amount of money contributed by physicians increased from $20 million in 1992 to $189 million in 2012, and the percentage of doctors making campaign contributions increased from 2.6 percent to 9.4 percent.
“A profession once firmly allied with Republicans is now shifting toward the Democrats,” the authors wrote. “The variables driving this change — sex, employment type, and specialty — are likely to continue to be active forces and to drive further changes.”
The percentage of women practicing medicine is likely to continue to increase and the number of solo and small practices is likely to continue to decrease, the study concluded.
While doctors are presumably relatively wealthy donors, the medical community may be going through a cultural shift, Moore said. It may take a major medical issue to energize physician donors nationwide in a local race, the way the Affordable Care Act did while it was under consideration, and the way assisted suicide did in the 1990s, he said.
“Her (Wehby’s) entire campaign is based on her expertise as a doctor, and she has based it on wanting to change the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “If it stays as a central part of the campaign, she can be a good, strong candidate.”
If the main focus of the campaign shifts to any other issue, she is going to have a harder time, he said.
As a first-time candidate in a statewide race, Wehby needs to introduce herself to voters across Oregon, and that takes money, he said.
“This summer, money is going to tell us whether Monica Wehby is going to have a strong campaign or not,” Moore said.
Andrew Zucker, Merkley’s deputy campaign manager, said Merkley is proud of the support he’s received from small donors in Oregon.
“We’re confident we have the resources we need to have a discussion with voters about the clear differences between Jeff’s fight for Oregon’s middle class and Monica Wehby’s embrace of the national Republicans’ agenda that would hurt Oregon — the Wehby campaign can’t say the same,” Zucker said.
The Wehby campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
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