By Lily Raff McCaulou

The Bulletin

PORTLAND — In his nationally syndicated newspaper column Sunday, conservative writer George Will made the case for Dr. Monica Wehby, the pediatric neurosurgeon and Republican who is vying for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

It was just the latest national spotlight for Wehby, a political newcomer who continues to dominate election headlines over incumbent Jeff Merkley.

Merkley, a Democrat, was elected to the Senate in 2008, when widespread anti-Republican sentiment drove President Barack Obama into office and knocked two-time Republican Sen. Gordon Smith out of Washington, D.C.

The pendulum could swing this fall. Obama’s approval rating is low, and many analysts predict Republicans will pick up the six seats needed to take control of the Senate.

Wehby has a compelling story. She’s a first-time candidate with a catchy slogan: “Keep your doctor. Change your Senator.”

In one of her TV ads, which was hailed on national political blogs when it was released this spring, the mother of a former patient wept as she recounted how Wehby saved her daughter’s life.

Even Merkley’s campaign appears focused on Wehby.

“What’s generating the buzz is the Republicans kind of salivating over the Merkley Senate seat, because leaders of the national party are sensing that it’s vulnerable,” said James Foster, a political science professor at Oregon State University-Cascades.

But despite heaps of media attention on Wehby, Merkley remains the strong favorite in polls.

Monday, The New York Times and CBS News released an analysis of all 36 Senate contests. Based on voter surveys, previous polls and state election history, it projected Merkley will defeat Wehby in November, 55 percent to 41 percent.

Last month, Nate Silver’s statistical website, FiveThirty­, predicted Merkley has a 95 percent chance of defeating Wehby.

So is Merkley vulnerable? Perhaps, said Foster.

He “tends to be soft” in polls that ask respondents how well he’s performing as senator, Foster said. Republicans interpret that to mean voters want someone else in office.

Foster said another explanation is that Oregon’s senior senator, Ron Wyden, also a Democrat, overshadows Merkley.

He said Merkley is not so unpopular that Wehby is wise to focus on him. Instead, Foster suggested she invoke a far less popular Democrat in office: the president.

“Republicans are going to try to run against Barack Obama, not Jeff Merkley,” Foster said. “They’re trying to nationalize this race.”

In fact, one of the only voices talking about Merkley this season is Wehby’s. Her campaign is working hard to lay blame for Obama’s failures at the feet of Merkley.

Dean Petrone, communications director of Wehby’s campaign, said Wehby is focused on three areas: health care, jobs and the economy.

“All areas where Merkley has failed miserably,” he said.

He pointed to Cover Oregon, the state’s version of an online health care exchange to meet the requirements of the Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare. The website never worked, despite costing taxpayers nearly $250 million, and is under investigation by the FBI. Though the state exchange was separate from the federal legislation Merkley voted for, Wehby’s spokesman described Cover Oregon as “Jeff Merkley’s pride and joy.”

Merkley’s campaign, meanwhile, is painting Wehby as an extreme right-winger.

Last week, the campaign organized a conference call for reporters to listen to pundits eviscerate Wehby’s tax plan, which they said would line the pockets of millionaires and billionaires, encourage companies to move jobs overseas and require vast cuts in social security and Medicare.

Jim Moore, assistant professor of politics and government at Pacific University, said Merkley’s campaign “was handed a giant gift” when news broke this spring of Wehby’s former relationship troubles. Police reports surfaced from two volatile breakups — one from her husband, who is now a friend and campaign supporter, another from a former boyfriend who is also now a backer.

Merkley hasn’t brought up these incidents explicitly, Moore said, in part because he hasn’t had to. “It kind of highlights Wehby’s rookie status,” Moore said.

Because Wehby has never held office, he said, nobody really knows what she would do as senator.

“So that’s free for Merkley to define. … And she’s probably being defined as more conservative than she really is,” Moore said.

But in The Oregonian’s recent Q&A series that put the candidates’ views side-by-side, he said, Wehby’s answers “are basically from the playbook of the conservative wing of the Republican party. She’s not doing herself any favors.”

Meanwhile, Merkley has so far raised significantly more money than Wehby. According to candidate filings with the Federal Election Commission, Merkley had raised $8.7 million by the end of June, and Wehby just over $2 million.

News broke this month that a conservative group linked to the Koch brothers is buying more than $3 million in television ads in Oregon, to help Wehby’s chances.

Moore said that will help Wehby reach more voters. But a candidate’s campaign is prohibited from coordinating with such outside groups.

“She doesn’t get to define what their message is,” Moore said. “So without enough of her own money, she’s going to be totally defined by what those other ads say.”

Ads funded by out-of-state groups can be tone-deaf to Oregon, he added.

“If they attack Merkley in, say, a way that could work in the red south, it could backfire here,” Moore said.

No Republican has won a statewide election in Oregon since 2002, when Gordon Smith won reelection. Chris Dudley, the former NBA basketball player, came within a few thousand votes of defeating Gov. John Kitzhaber in 2010.

“Dudley did a good job of explaining who he was. He was the moderate Republican,” Moore said.

For all the attention being paid to Wehby, not much of it is shedding light on her views as a candidate. Even Will’s Sunday column, which was printed in several Oregon newspapers including The Bulletin, mentioned few qualifications for Wehby other than her medical degree and her status as a Beltway outsider.

Moore said he is writing the official biography of Vic Atiyeh, a two-term Republican governor who died earlier this month. Atiyeh was a fiscal conservative who, according to Moore, made easy personal connections with Oregon voters. “Vic lived for county fairs,” Moore said.

In late summer, Atiyeh could be found riding a horse in a parade, waving from a convertible or just chatting with voters over buttered ears of corn. Moore said Merkley, like Atiyeh, is comfortable in jeans and boots and enjoys informal encounters with his constituents. Moore said Wehby has an opportunity to show that side of herself, now that fair season is underway.

— Reporter: 541-410-9207;