Oregon Republicans have a choice in the May primary between a candidate who could give fits to U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley in Novembers general election, or one whos more likely to serve as a sacrificial offering to the well-funded Democratic incumbent.
GOP voters should opt for the practical-minded Dr. Monica Wehby, who is thin on political experience but capable of connecting with a broad spectrum of Oregonians if given the chance to face off against the one-term Merkley in the fall.
Wehbys chief opponent in the May 20 primary is state Rep. Jason Conger of Bend, an attorney who has served two terms in the Oregon House. Conger has staked out the most conservative ground in the primary battle, while Wehby has navigated toward the middle, where general election campaigns are won or lost in Oregon.
The Pamplin Media Groups editorial board interviewed each of the front-runners (three lesser known candidates also filed), and concluded that each brings strengths to a potential campaign against Merkley. The two candidates also share a weakness: Both need to deepen their knowledge of federal issues and step up their campaign game if they hope to mount a successful November challenge.
Wehby, director of pediatric neurosurgery at Randall Childrens Hospital in Portland, has the greatest chance to make that transformation between May and November. A 16-year resident of Oregon, she has a compelling life story as a neurosurgeon and single mother of four children. She also has a charming personal style and has demonstrated impressive money-raising prowess.
When it comes to knowledge of the issues, Wehby can go deep when talking about health care, which Republicans hope to campaign on in the fall. She is fiercely critical of the Affordable Care Act, but recognizes political reality. She supports repeal, but if the law cannot be repealed, she argues, it should be reformed.
That stance doesnt differ markedly from the one Conger took during our editorial board meeting, but the two candidates nonetheless have found ample fodder for debate on the health care issue. Conger has radio ads criticizing Wehby for her embrace of U.S. Sen. Ron Wydens alternate health care plan, one that had bipartisan Senate support. Conger also points to other evidence of Wehbys moderation: her libertarian positions on abortion and same-sex marriage.
Conger argues that his views pro-life and anti-gay marriage are more true to the Republican Party. He may be correct, but Republican voters also must consider whether they want to win in November or just make an ideological statement.
Wehby is more in step with the branch of the Oregon Republican Party that produced Vic Atiyeh, Mark Hatfield, Bob Packwood, Norma Paulus and even Gordon Smith in other words, Republicans who won elections.
Conger perhaps has more directly relevant experience, having served in the Oregon Legislature, but as Wehby puts its, shes no babe in the woods. Wehby has worked on many political issues in her leadership roles within the medical profession. She is a past president of the Oregon Medical Association and a past board member of the American Medical Association.
When she ventures away from the topic of health care, Wehbys knowledge of other federal issues is wide but relatively shallow. However, shes been running this campaign while continuing her neurosurgery work. If nominated by Republican voters in May, she plans to take a leave of absence and concentrate on the fall campaign full time.
GOP voters should provide her that opportunity, knowing that Monica Wehby is the one Republican candidate most capable of mounting a credible November challenge.