In recent weeks, the Oregon Republican primary for U.S. Senate has been in the Wall Street Journal, on Fox News, on MSNBC and on the Washington Post’s website.
That’s an impressive publicity rap for candidates who have little name recognition in a decidedly blue state. There are a few reasons why the battle between front-runners Jason Conger, a state representative from Bend, and Monica Wehby, a physician from Portland, has captured national attention.
One, though the vulnerability of incumbent Democrat Jeff Merkley is open to debate, Republicans believe they could wrest control of the Senate in November. The numbers are close enough that interest is growing even in heavily Democratic states such as Oregon.
Two, both candidates have compelling personal stories that are easily condensed into catchy sound bites. Conger, a state representative from Bend, grew up in poverty and almost dropped out of high school before eventually graduating from Harvard Law. His website describes his story as “Homeless to Harvard.” Wehby, of Portland, is a pediatric neurosurgeon whose first television ad features the quip that politics is “not brain surgery.” Wehby’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act has prompted campaign bumper stickers that read, “Keep your doctor. Change your Senator.”
And third, at least to some, the race between Conger and Wehby is representative of a greater struggle within the GOP. The tea party, a grass-roots movement that sprung from the Republican Party in 2009, continues to fracture the conservative base.
Meanwhile, some Republicans warn that if the party doesn’t bend on social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, it will lose its appeal among younger voters.
Five Republicans will appear on the Republican ballot, including Mark Callahan, Timothy Crawley and Jo Rae Perkins. Only two candidates, however, have dominated the race.
Conger, 46, was raised by parents whom he describes as “part of the hippie movement” of the 1960s. His parents divorced when Conger was 8. He moved around frequently before settling in Crescent City, Calif. His family struggled to stay afloat, even spending one summer living out of a truck camper. At 16, after repeatedly clashing with his father, Conger moved out of his family home. He married his high school sweetheart, Amy, at 21.
That same year, he ran for City Council in Crescent City and lost by about 20 votes. He was recruited to work on the campaign of a local congressional candidate, Frank Riggs. Riggs won and Conger spent a year working for him in Washington, D.C., before returning to the West Coast. After studying at a community college, he completed his bachelor’s degree at California State University, Humboldt. Conger excelled on the law school entrance exams and was accepted to Harvard Law School.
He graduated in 2000 and went to work for Cooley LLP as a corporate lawyer in San Diego. Four years later, Conger and his wife decided to raise their children in a small town. They moved to Bend, where Conger co-founded a real estate investment company now called Cornerstone Realty Holdings. He started his own law practice, then joined the law firm of Miller Nash LLP, where he is a partner.
Conger and his wife home-schooled their five children, ages 8 to 22. They initially tried it as a logistical solution while relocating during law school, Conger said. But they came to appreciate the benefits such as a flexible schedule and the freedom to align the curriculum with the family’s faith.
In 2010, Conger defeated one-term Democratic incumbent Judy Stiegler to become the District 54 representative to the Oregon House. He won re-election in 2012 and announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate in October. If elected, Conger said, there are three main issues he would begin work on immediately.
“First, repeal Obamacare and replace it with a more modest and more proven set of reforms that will actually make health care more affordable,” he said.
Second, Conger said he wants to “restore active management of our federal forests.” Increased logging would jump-start rural economies by putting people to work felling trees and operating mills. Manufacturing would rebound, and secondary economies would grow, too, he said. More revenue would mean more taxes to fund schools and public safety. And logging would improve forest health and reduce costly, risky wildfires, he added.
Third, Conger said he would work to balance the budget and reduce the deficit.
“We have over $2.7 trillion of federal revenue every year,” he said. “That seems like a lot of money to run the country with. Somewhere, someone will not get the federal dollars that they’ve been getting. But it just has to be done.”
Wehby, 51, was born and raised in Nashville, Tenn. Her father worked as an accountant and small-business owner, and her mother as a registered nurse. Growing up in Nashville, Wehby said she was surrounded by music and learned to play the guitar, banjo and piano.
Beginning at age 18, Wehby’s life history starts to read like a curriculum vitae. She attended the University of Notre Dame, then the Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, where she said she first pondered the idea of running for Senate. At the time, she was medical student body president, senior class president and chairwoman of the Texas Medical Association medical student section. After graduating, in 1984, Wehby became the first woman to enroll in and graduate from the neurosurgery residency at the University of California, Los Angeles. Next, she completed a fellowship in pediatric neurosurgery at the University of Utah.
She moved to Portland in 1998 to work as director of pediatric neurosurgery at Randall Children’s Hospital at Legacy Emanuel.
Though she has never held public office, Wehby has held professional leadership positions, including president of the Oregon Medical Association, where she led a statewide campaign for medical malpractice reform in 2004. That ballot measure lost.
As a doctor, she said, she is in touch with Oregonians from all over the state and has an intimate understanding of health care. She said she has often considered running for office but wanted to wait until her four children, now teenagers, were older.
“It’s like having a baby: There’s never a good time, you just have to go for it at some point,” she said.
In the last year, as her interest grew more serious, she said she talked several times with Tom Coburn, a physician-turned-senator from Oklahoma. She was on the brink of launching her campaign when she phoned Coburn from her home office. It was September and she said she was looking out a west-facing window, toward the Coast Range, crying as she asked him, “How did you decide to leave your practice? How can I leave all these kids?”
“He told me, ‘You’re not leaving the kids, you’re taking care of everybody …,’” she said.
Since announcing her candidacy in October, Wehby said she has scaled back her medical practice to about half time. If she wins the primary, she said she will take a sabbatical to campaign full time.
“I haven’t wanted to leave my medical practice yet. I think it’s important to stay grounded and keep in touch with what’s going on,” she said.
Wehby lives in southwest Portland, down the street from her ex-husband. She divorced in 2007.
Questions about influence
More recently, Wehby has been linked to Andrew Miller, president of Stimson Lumber and one of the top GOP donors in the state. The Oregonian reported in October that Wehby and Miller had introduced each other as their date at political events. In an interview last week, when asked to characterize her relationship with Miller, Wehby said: “We’re friends.”
The issue cropped up when Miller, along with Nevada businessman Loren Parks, created a Political Action Committee called “If He Votes Like That In Salem Imagine What He Will Do In Congress.” According to a quarterly report filed with the Federal Election Commission this month, Parks donated $75,000 and Miller donated $30,950 to the PAC. Miller’s sum includes an in-kind donation worth $5,950 — an anti-Conger billboard on Interstate 205 in Clackamas County outside of Portland.
The PAC has also paid for a radio commercial that criticizes Conger’s House votes for bills to create the beleaguered state health insurance exchange and build a now-defunct bridge over the Columbia River. It also criticizes his vote for a budget bill that included funds for a new convention center and hotel in Portland.
Under federal law, individuals may only donate $2,600 to a candidate per election cycle, but unlimited donations are permitted to PACs. The catch: A PAC is strictly prohibited from coordinating with a candidate’s campaign. That’s where Wehby’s friendship with Miller has drawn scrutiny.
On MSNBC, liberal talk host Chris Hayes sarcastically lamented: “Why can’t a wealthy guy go out and buy something nice for the special someone in his life without everyone getting so suspicious?”
Wehby denied any collaboration between the campaign and the PAC. She said she had no idea who was funding the ads until she saw the FEC filing, which was first reported by Oregon Oracle earlier this month.
“There is absolutely no coordination between our campaign and the group that was doing those (ads),” Wehby said. “I’m a friend. I have nothing to do with those ads. I’m not going to comment any further on them.”
Miller did not respond to voice mails requesting comment.
Wehby went on to ask why nobody alleges coordination between Conger’s campaign and Oregon Right to Life, a pro-life organization that has endorsed Conger and is running radio ads promoting him and attacking Wehby.
Gayle Atteberry, executive director of Oregon Right to Life, said the group has been “extremely careful not to have any relationship whatsoever” with Conger or his campaign.
“It’s kind of sad,” she said. “We haven’t talked to Jason in months and months. I saw him at a public meeting once, but that’s it.”
Conger said his campaign “deliberately severed any communication with (Oregon) Right to Life” after the organization endorsed him, to prevent conflicts of interest.
Atteberry declined to specify how much the organization is spending on the commercials, but the group’s quarterly report filed with the Federal Election Commission this month shows it has already spent more than $54,000 on radio and video advertising related to the Conger-Wehby race.
GOP leaders back Wehby
Jennifer Rubin, a conservative writer for The Washington Post, penned a column on April 3 that tallied U.S. Senate seats that might swing from blue to red in November. By her calculations, “If you squint, you get to 14.” That’s twice as many seats as the Republicans would have to pick up to win the majority. Rubin conceded that Oregon’s seat is “not likely to go to the GOP, but it’s not nutty to think it might.” In her bit about Oregon, the final state in her count to 14, Rubin made no mention of Conger. Instead, she said the state has “a highly competent female Republican doctor Monica Wehby running against Jeff Merkley.”
In an April 11 column in The Wall Street Journal, Fred Barnes, a Fox News commentator and executive editor of The Weekly Standard, wrote of Wehby: “The National Republican Senatorial Committee hasn’t endorsed her, but it tells anyone who asks that she’s the strongest GOP contender.” That nod has led to Wehby’s significant fundraising advantage over Conger, Barnes wrote.
But Barnes went on to cite a recent survey by a Republican firm, Harper Polling, which determined that Conger would actually fare better against the incumbent than Wehby would. Conger trailed Merkley 47 percent to 40 percent, according to the poll, and Wehby trailed him 46 percent to 36 percent.
All of this helps explain why Conger insists that if this primary race follows the oft-used establishment-versus-outsider narrative, he plays the part of the challenger. Never mind that Wehby has never held political office, he said, she is clearly the “establishment” candidate.
“When I think of an ‘establishment’ candidate, I’m thinking of the organizations that have enormous resources nationally. Their center of gravity is Washington, D.C.,” he said.
Conger said he is bothered by the sort of intervention in a primary that he believes the National Republican Senatorial Committee has demonstrated. Conger said he would prefer that outside money and influences stay out of the race until voters within Oregon have selected their candidate.
But Wehby said Conger met with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, too. She declined to assign any sort of narrative to the primary.
“I don’t have any interest in getting into a food fight with my fellow Republicans,” she said. “To be honest, I’ve been focused on Jeff Merkley the whole time. I think I’m the best candidate to beat Jeff.”
Conger said the way he sees it, the Republican “establishment” tends to prefer more liberal candidates because experts in Washington believe they will have wider appeal.
“My sense is that was a big part of the motivation to promote Monica. They wanted a pro-gay-marriage candidate in D.C.,” Conger said.
Wehby scoffed at the idea that she was being promoted by out-of-state interests. And she said her views on gay marriage are more nuanced than Conger makes them out to be. She sees gay marriage as an issue for states, not the federal government.
“As Republicans, we are all about personal freedom,” she said. “That’s what our country was founded on: religious freedom and personal freedom. The federal government shouldn’t be involved in the marriage business. … We also have to respect the religious freedom and beliefs of everyone. So I don’t believe that churches should be forced to perform ceremonies that they don’t agree with.”
Conger said gay marriage is a complicated issue because it inherently involves “constitutional tension:” freedom of speech and freedom of religion on one side, equality on the other.
“I fall on the side of: Well, this has been the definition of marriage for thousands of years. … And the justification for changing it doesn’t seem compelling to me,” he said.
He said that because the tradition of marriage is rooted in procreation, states have a natural interest in promoting the traditional definition.
“The nature of the state interest is in perpetuating itself,” he said. “Procreation can only happen between a man and a woman, so there is, I think, a state interest in promoting traditional marriage.”
Conger said he does believe civil unions or domestic partnerships should be available “so that people who are in love have the ability to legally bind their lives together.”
Conger describes himself as pro-life.
“Life begins at conception and … in an ideal world, abortion would not be legal except in the case of rape (or) when the life of the mother is in jeopardy,” he said.
Conger believes that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that prohibited states from banning abortion, was wrongly decided.
“It was almost arbitrary,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a clear federal, constitutional role. It’s a state issue.”
A Catholic who was raised in the South, Wehby, said she, too, sees herself as pro-life. But to some, she sounds decidedly pro-choice.
“I’ve dedicated my life to infants and small children, I operate on … little preemies that are just 23 or 24 weeks (gestational age),” she said. “I operate on those babies and I try to save their lives.”
Abortion is, she said, “a society issue. We have to make people know that there are other alternatives. We have to make sure they know about adoption, that they have prenatal care, that they don’t feel that there’s such a scarlet letter on their chest.”
Wehby said she rejects the notion that abortion should be a deciding issue for voters.
“In this country, the law is that (abortion) is a personal decision,” she said. “It’s between a woman and her faith, a woman and her family, a woman and her physician … as a senator, you’re not going to be changing that anyway. We’ve got issues that we can actually do something about as a senator, and so to turn this into a litmus test just doesn’t make any sense.”
Wehby’s career means that abortion is not a hypothetical issue for her, it’s an everyday one, she said.
“I counsel moms all the time on this issue, And I can honestly say, in 17 years, I have never recommended to a mom to terminate a pregnancy,” she said. “I’m very honest with them, I’ll tell them what’s going on with the baby. But often I’m the only one that tells them anything good.”
Wehby’s most recent television spot, “Trust,” touches lightly on the topic of abortion.
In the ad, a Gresham mother describes learning, 21 weeks into her pregnancy, that there was something wrong with her baby’s spine. Her obstetrician said she should consider terminating the pregnancy. Instead Wehby operated on the newborn infant, successfully reconstructing the girl’s lower spine.
The ad shows a healthy-looking 12-year-old girl, and ends with the mother saying, through tears, “all of Washington needs to be full of people like Dr. Wehby.”
On the campaign’s Twitter feed, the ad was introduced as telling the mother’s “remarkable story and why every life is precious.” Wehby’s campaign has said it’s spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to air the ad regularly.
The ad was touted on several popular websites when it was released last week. Conservative news site RedState lauded it as “a hammer of a campaign ad,” and The Fix, a bipartisan blog run by The Washington Post, hailed it as “one of the best political ads of 2014.”
Affordable Care Act
If there’s one opinion that the candidates share, it’s this: the Affordable Care Act is awful. Both Conger and Wehby have expended considerable campaign energy trying to portray themselves as the candidate who despises it the most.
Wehby participated in a national television ad opposing the health care bill before it passed, in 2010. She said she had to change her home phone number because she received so many threats.
Yet Conger has criticized Wehby for not opposing the Affordable Care Act wholly enough to vow to repeal it. She has said a complete repeal would be logistically unfeasible at this point.
“It’s a great goal to try to have affordable health care available to everybody. But they didn’t do it right,” she said. “The way to do it would have been incremental approaches … with proven methods that work. Not a massive overhaul like this.”
Wehby said she supports the creation of high-risk insurance pools, the expanded use of health savings accounts and tort reform to lower health care costs. She does not agree with requiring a certain level of coverage for all insurance plans, forcing large employers to insure workers who work fewer than 40 hours a week or mandating that individuals buy insurance.
“The biggest problem is the (law’s) interference in the doctor-patient relationship,” she said. “Because that is a very personal relationship …. Instead, people are having to change doctors, premiums are skyrocketing and it’s causing all kinds of problems.”
Conger, on the other hand, has said he would fight to repeal the entire law. He would then include some popular provisions of the law in its replacement, such as allowing parents to keep their children on their plan until age 26.
“And I think we need to look at things like permitting interstate competition among insurers,” he said. “I like health savings accounts in an expanded sense. I think insurers should be allowed to offer incentives to engage in healthy behavior … without (having to obtain) a waiver.”
Conger has also needled Wehby for working with Oregon’s other Democratic senator, Ron Wyden, on his failed attempt at health care reform that preceded the Affordable Care Act. In 2007 and again in 2009, Wyden, along with Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, tried to pass the Healthy Americans Act. Wyden’s plan for universal health care appeared to have bipartisan support but failed to make it to a vote. The law is sometimes described as a blueprint for the Affordable Care Act.
At the time, Wehby said, she was president of the Oregon Medical Association. Wyden, whom she considers a friend, asked her to look at medical details of the bill. The bill wasn’t perfect, she said, but it was better than the Affordable Care Act.
“It had bipartisan support and it was budget-neutral,” she said.
Wehby has accused Conger of initially supporting the Affordable Care Act based on his 2011 vote, as a member of the state House, for the bill that created the state health insurance exchange, Cover Oregon. The exchange cost $248 million and its website, originally intended to offer one-stop comparative shopping for health insurance, still doesn’t work. The state decided Friday to scrap its exchange altogether, in favor of the federal one.
Conger said he and other lawmakers faced two options at the time: Pass this bill or use the federal exchange.
“It’s not like by voting against this bill you’ve suddenly opted out of Obamacare,” he said. “That would have meant using the federal site, which looked to me more like embracing federal-run health care. … All the Cover Oregon bill did was create a public corporation to be the insurance exchange.”
Health exchanges such as Cover Oregon, Conger pointed out, are just one part of the 2,600-page statute.
“If I would have known in 2011 what I know now, which is that there would be an absolutely epic failure to … create a state health exchange, I wouldn’t have voted for it,” Conger said. “We’ve wasted an extraordinary amount of money. … So I understand the criticism. But to call it a vote for Obamacare is beyond any possible interpretation.”
Uphill battle for Republicans
Jim Moore, a professor of politics and government at Pacific University, said he’s been surprised by the level of national interest in this race.
“This is not a tea party candidate trying to take on Mitch McConnell,” he said, referring to a challenger who has put the Senate minority leader’s place on the November ballot in Kentucky in question. “This is two kind of low-level candidates hoping to get interest. Compared to other primaries … this is not very high profile. And yet it’s on the radar.”
Moore said Merkley’s dominance is underscored by polls like the one by Harper Polling that found Conger stood a slightly better chance against the senator than Wehby did. Neither Republican candidate won more than 40 percent of the vote in that survey.
But in 2012, according to Moore, Oregon underwent an “accidental experiment” to gauge the baseline for Republican support. In the primary that year, no Republicans ran for state attorney general or treasurer. But two write-in campaigns launched after the primary landed one little-known Republican on the November ballot in each race. Both won about 40 percent of the vote.
Moore concluded that was the percentage of Oregonians who were likely to check any box with “Republican” next to the name.
Even Knute Buehler, a Bend physician and moderate Republican who ran for secretary of state and is now running for Conger’s seat in the state House, won only 43.2 percent of the vote in his loss to Democrat Kate Brown. Buehler, Moore pointed out, had statewide name recognition, bipartisan appeal and the advantage of running for an office that isn’t viewed as particularly political.
To a pundit on the East Coast, Moore said, it might look like the gap between Conger’s estimated 40 percent and Merkley’s estimated 47 percent is small enough to close. But Moore said that could be tough in Oregon. For one thing, he said, it’s likely to cost more than 10 times the $1.1 million that Wehby has reported raising so far. Conger has raised even less than Wehby.
At this point, Moore said he doesn’t see either candidate beating Merkley.
“But six months is an eternity in politics,” he added.
At this time in 2008, Merkley was engaged in a tough Democratic primary race and whoever won that “stood no chance,” Moore said, against Republican two-term Sen. Gordon Smith. Then, in September, the nation became aware of what is now called the Great Recession.
“It changed that entire conversation,” Moore said.
Merkley could become more vulnerable between now and the general election on Nov. 4 with some kind of personal meltdown, such as an affair, according to Moore. Another economic crash could turn voters away from incumbents. Or a now-simmering issue such as the Affordable Care Act could heat up to boiling and jolt voters’ priorities.
“Something like that could happen,” Moore said. “But in effect, those are out of control of the candidates. The strategy right now seems to be: Get through the primary, put together as good a campaign as you can and hope the wind blows the right way.”
— Reporter: 541-410-9207; firstname.lastname@example.org