By Lauren Dake

The Bulletin

SEASIDE — The two Republican front-runners vying to represent Oregon in the U.S. Senate faced off at the annual Dorchester Conference on Friday night.

Rep. Jason Conger, an attorney from Bend, and Monica Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon from Portland, are both hoping to oust Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.

The opponents wasted no time trying to differentiate themselves for the audience at the 50th annual Republican convention.

In his opening remarks, Conger called Wehby “rich” and “disconnected.” Wehby fired back, implying Conger is a career politician.

They faced a question about how they would handle the situation with Russia in Crimea. Both voiced concern that an international perception of U.S. weakness was leading to instability.

But the debate quickly went to one of the most contentious topics of the race: health care. Conger urged Wehby to stop spreading “misinformation” about his position on Cover Oregon.

Conger, being a state lawmaker, voted in favor of creating the exchange. The vote was a choice between creating a state-run exchange or having to rely on the federal exchange, Conger said. He thought the creation of a state-run exchange was the better option.

Wehby said she went out on a ledge early by opposing Obamacare, receiving hate mail and threatening phone calls for her position.

“I was against Obamacare, when it wasn’t cool to be against Obamacare,” she said.

Conger, in advertising and in the debate has highlighted Wehby’s support of a plan proposed by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., that has many of the same elements of Obamacare.

“If it regulates like Obamacare, and it taxes like Obamacare and it costs like Obamacare, it is Obamacare,” Conger said.

Both candidates also pointed to their personal histories during the debate, such as when an audience member asked the candidates to identify their mentors.

Conger replied by recounting times in his life when he skipped meals because he had no money. There were times when he didn’t have a roof over his head, he said.

“I barely made it through high school. … As a result, I didn’t develop many long-term healthy relationships. So, I don’t think I’ve had a mentor,” he said, adding he feels blessed he’s had so many other friendships along the way.

In contrast, Wehby pointed to U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who is also a doctor.

When considering her bid for Senate, she turned to him.

“He said, ‘Monica, you’re not leaving your patients, you’re taking care of all the kids,’” Wehby said.

A questioner, pointing to the current state of partisan bickering in the U.S. Senate, asked the candidates if they could work across the aisle, including with Sen. Wyden. Conger pointed to his past four years as a state representative, working in the minority.

“I’ve found it’s good to debate vigorously with the Democratic majority,” he said.

Wehby noted she’s been friends with Wyden for a decade, having worked as a medical consultant on his health care legislation.

“You don’t get anywhere when you name call, bad mouth, insult the other side,” she said. “Who is going to work with you if you do that?”

Wehby is the director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Randall Children’s Hospital, in Portland. She’s originally from Tennessee and studied at Notre Dame University and Baylor University, before moving to Portland in 1998.

Although the topic didn’t surface during the debate, Wehby has differentiated herself from the pack of Republicans vying to unseat Merkley, in part, because of her stance on abortion. Although, she said, she’s personally pro-life, she doesn’t feel it’s the federal government’s job to make that decision for women.

Not all state Republicans attended Dorchester. A rift between conservatives caused some to ditch the annual conference and hold their own “freedom rally.”

Conger planned to speak at the alternative rally today.

In a letter to the Dorchester board, those charged with the new rally, including former gubernatorial candidate Kevin Mannix, wrote, “In light of the unveiled agenda to promote and celebrate liberal causes like abortion-on-demand, pet campaign projects like “republicanization” same-sex marriage and the attack on people of faith and their religious liberties, many of us do not feel that our participation in this year’s Dorchester Conference is welcomed. Considering our past relationships we actually find ourselves blindsided by the total disregard to our core issues.”

The separate event would be a more welcoming “atmosphere for those with conservative leanings, both social and fiscal, along with a show of mutual respect for broader Republican values,” the letter states.

— Reporter: 541-554-1162,