Wehby, Conger hone game plans as they vie for Merkley's seat

The two leading Republicans in the May 20 primary are taking different roads in their bids to face Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley in the fall.

Monica Wehby, a Portland surgeon, advertises herself as a fresh face in politics. But she’s also relying on big campaign contributions — some of them from Washington, D.C. — that have put her on the airwaves.

“It does not matter how great a candidate you are if nobody knows who you are and you can’t get your message out,” she says.

DR. MONICA WEHBYShe also has big-name endorsements from Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, and Newt Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker.

Jason Conger, a lawyer from Bend, unseated a Democratic incumbent in the Oregon House in 2010. He has raised far less than Wehby and hasn’t been on the airwaves in the Portland media market, which reaches more than half of Oregon’s voters.

But Conger is relying on his legislative record and his life story — which took him from poverty to prosperity, via a law degree from Harvard — to win the nomination from more conservative Republican primary voters.

“I am much more in alignment with two-thirds of the GOP in Oregon,” Conger says.

Three other candidates in the race are Mark Callahan, an information technology consultant from Salem; Tim Crawley, a lawyer from Portland; and Jo Rae Perkins, a former Linn County Republican chairwoman from Albany.

Though the candidates have appeared jointly at forums, there has been only one face-off between Conger and Wehby, and that was limited to attendees at the annual Dorchester Conference that took place March 7. Wehby rejected a proposed one-on-one appearance at Portland TV station KGW.

Wehby won the straw poll at Dorchester, an unofficial gathering of Republicans, but Conger also addressed a gathering of more conservative Republicans the next day in Clackamas.

The two will appear together May 16, four days before the primary, at the Portland City Club.

Whoever emerges from the primary will face Merkley, a former Oregon House speaker from Portland who unseated two-term Republican Gordon Smith in the 2008 election that swept Barack Obama into the presidency.

Merkley has advantage

STATE REP. JASON CONGERAlthough Oregon has sided with the Democratic nominee for president seven straight times, and last elected a Republican as governor in 1982, Democrats have held both U.S. Senate seats only since Merkley was elected to join Democrat Ron Wyden. Before then, Democrats held both Senate seats during a decade-long stretch from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s.

Even though it is Merkley’s first re-election bid, political commentator Jim Moore said he starts with an advantage over any Republican rival. The major national rating services — Cook, Rothenberg and the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia — list the Oregon seat as safe or likely Democratic.

“Conger, on paper, looks like someone that the Republican electorate will support,” says Moore, who teaches politics at Pacific University. “Wehby, on paper, looks like the last two Republican candidates for governor who came out of the primaries — not as liberal as them, but closer than Conger.”

Ron Saxton, a Portland lawyer and the 2006 nominee, lost to Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski. Chris Dudley, a businessman and former player with the Portland Trail Blazers and other teams, was the 2010 nominee who lost narrowly to Democrat John Kitzhaber.

Neither has strong name recognition

Harper Polling, a Republican firm in Pennsylvania, says its results show the Senate race is far closer than the public may think, but that neither Conger nor Wehby is particularly known statewide. The polling was conducted in early April, before Wehby’s TV blitz, and Conger did better than Wehby in matchups against Merkley.

“The money appears to be going to Wehby,” Moore adds. “But we do not have any independent evidence that it is making a difference with the electorate.”

Final pre-election reports were due today with the Federal Election Commission, but Wehby had raised $1.1 million — about $600,000 during the first quarter this year — and Conger had raised under $300,000. Conger’s first-quarter amount was $64,000, about 10 percent of Wehby’s,

The amounts exclude $106,000 spent independently on anti-Conger TV ads by Andrew Miller, president of Stimson Lumber of Forest Grove, who has been linked romantically to Wehby, although neither would discuss the relationship, and Nevada businessman Loren Parks. They also exclude $76,000 provided for TV ads by New Republican, associated with GOP political consultant Alex Castellanos, to promote Wehby.

Merkley raised about $1 million, during the period, and has stockpiled $3.6 million in the bank.

The 2008 Senate campaign cost a record $27 million, counting spending independent of the candidates’ campaigns.

Wehby’s views

Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Randall Children’s Hospital, is making her first run for public office. But she’s not new to politics.

Wehby was the chief petitioner for a 2004 ballot measure, which voters rejected, that would have allowed lawmakers to limit liability for doctors.

As president of the Medical Society of Metropolitan Portland and the Oregon Medical Association, she was involved in discussions about overhauling health care, including a proposal developed by Sen. Ron Wyden as the Healthy Americans Act in 2007 and 2009.

That bill had similarities to what Congress finally adopted in 2010 as the Affordable Care Act, although President Obama said it went too far in changing employer-based care and supported something else.

Wehby said she liked Wyden’s bipartisan approach, although she did not associate herself with its financing.

“He always tries to work with both sides and get his legislation to be bipartisan, where you have the interests of both sides represented,” she says. “One thing we need to see more of is being able to find common ground without sacrificing your principles.”

Wehby assailed Merkley, in contrast, for being “the most liberal senator.” But the National Journal rating on which Wehby based her criticism was only for 2011, when Wyden was ranked 17th. During the five years they have served in the Senate together, Merkley and Wyden have been relatively close. And in 2013, Wyden was 34th and Merkley 38th on the liberal scale.

“We (Republicans) have an opportunity to capture the Senate, and contrary to what people may have thought six months ago, this race is in play,” Wehby says.

Wehby plans to tie Merkley to the ragged startup of the national health care overhaul, including the failure of the website for Cover Oregon, the state’s $248 million online health insurance exchange that never worked.

Wehby is vague about her proposed alternative to the Affordable Care Act, though she says among its elements should be a national limit on doctors’ professional liability and more vigorous directives from older patients about what is appropriate end-of-life care.

She did not mention it, but the ads financed independently by Miller and Parks go after Conger for his 2011 and 2012 votes in the Oregon House to establish an exchange separate from the federal one.

“We’ve tried to stay positive,” she says.

Wehby, during a Washington, D.C., reception last year, received contributions not only from the political committees of several health organizations but also from eight current or former Republican members of Congress. One was Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a physician who is leaving the Senate this year.

Conger’s views

While Conger himself is critical of the state’s botched execution of the Cover Oregon website, he also says Oregon was right to try to shape elements of the national overhaul to fit the state.

“The idea that Congress knows what’s best for you and your grandchildren is absurd,” he says.

Conger voted in the Oregon House for reshaping how health care is delivered to low-income recipients of the Oregon Health Plan through coordinated-care organizations. He also voted for a package of 2011 bills to reshape public schools and require them to enter into contracts with the state about performance goals.

“I really feel strongly about education and how it can change lives,” he said.

Because of those and other issues, Conger says, “I didn’t set out to establish myself as a long-term legislator.”

Conger came to the Bend office of the Miller Nash law firm in 2009 after working his way through Humboldt State University and Harvard University law school. He hasn’t forgotten the hard times.

Though Conger established himself as a business conservative, he also was critical of some tax breaks for large businesses and supportive of the earned-income tax break for working families. He supported an effort, which failed, to require greater disclosure of toxic chemicals in some products.

Conger also was critical of Merkley, but less from an ideological view and more about what issues Merkley has chosen to work on, including a change in Senate rules to allow a simple majority to cut off debate on presidential nominations other than judgeships.

“I don’t see him addressing issues that most Oregonians are concerned about,” he says.

Conger hasn’t gone after Wehby in the same way that Wehby supporters have gone after Conger’s voting record, including his 2013 support for the Columbia River Crossing.

But Conger says he is more in tune with how he thinks most Republicans think about abortion and same-sex marriage. He is opposed to both; Wehby says “it’s a personal decision; I do not think the government should be involved.”

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Taking no chances, Merkley lines up big bucks, big guns

Democrat Jeff Merkley unseated Republican Gordon Smith from the U.S. Senate six years ago — and he does not want the same to happen to him this year.

So Merkley has stockpiled $3.6 million, including $1 million raised in the first quarter of this year, to ward off whichever Republican emerges as his challenger from the May 20 primary.

That’s far more on hand than either of the two leading Republicans, Monica Wehby or Jason Conger.

Republicans have their own polls showing that Merkley is vulnerable, or at least within striking distance. Merkley released an internal poll, conducted by a Democratic firm, that shows him easily beating either leading Republican.

In 2008, Merkley trailed Smith in most public opinion polls until the final weeks of the campaign. He won with 49 percent of the votes to Smith’s 45.5 percent; a third-party candidate won the rest.

Democrat Barack Obama won the presidency with 57 percent in Oregon, and won re-election with 54 percent in 2012. But Republicans think Obama’s weaker favorability ratings will rub off on Democrats in an off-year election.

Merkley’s campaign spokesman would not comment on the political prospects for the fall, and his campaign staff declined to make Merkley available for an interview.

Merkley, however, appears to be taking no chances.

He’s enlisted the aid of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren for a $100-per-person fundraiser May 28 at the Portland Hilton. Warren, an outspoken critic of Wall Street financial excesses before she was elected in 2012, also will appear at Powell’s Cedar Hills Crossing bookstore that night to promote her book, “A Fighting Chance.”

“She is a champion for working people across this nation and a close ally of mine on so many issues, from the battle to reform Wall Street to our fight to bring down the cost of college loans,” Merkley said in an announcement.

Democrats say Wehby's fundraising a little romantic

Oregon Democrats have filed a challenge to an expenditure by the president of Stimson Lumber Co. that paid for advertising against Monica Wehby’s main challenger for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate.

Andrew Miller, Stimson’s chief executive, and Nevada businessman Loren Parks paid $106,000 for broadcast ads against state Rep. Jason Conger, R-Bend, who also is seeking the GOP Senate nomination. Miller has been linked romantically to Wehby, although neither would discuss their relationship, saying it is a private matter.

Miller also played host to a Wehby fundraiser last week.

The chairman of the Democratic Party of Oregon, in announcing a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission, said it defies belief there was no coordination of effort. Independent political action committees can spend for or against candidates, but under federal rules, they cannot coordinate those efforts with the candidates.

“When you’re in a relationship, communication is essential. When you have a Super PAC, communication is forbidden. Starting a Super PAC for someone you are romantically involved with and feigning ignorance of her campaign strategy and denying coordination is brazen, to say the least,” said Frank Dixon of Portland, chairman of the Democratic Party of Oregon.

“Monica Wehby and timber baron Andrew Miller are making a mockery of our campaign finance system. To claim there’s no coordination when a major funder of the Super PAC is hosting campaign fundraisers is unbelievable. The FEC needs to investigate allegations of illegal coordination immediately.”

It is unlikely that the FEC would investigate the complaint before the May 20 election.

Wehby, a Portland pediatric neurosurgeon, has raised $1.1 million compared with under $300,000 for Conger, a Bend lawyer and two-term state representative. She had more cash on hand than he did on March 31. Final pre-election reports are due Thursday to the FEC. Three other candidates trail them in fundraising.

The winner of the five-way primary will face Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, who is seeking a second six-year term.

Wehby's campaign manager blasted the complaint. "Our campaign has not coordinated with this group in any way," said Charlie Pearce. "Anyone suggesting otherwise is making a false accusation."

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