Oregon has a lively U. S. Senate race on its hands this year, but a Republican preference for neophyte candidates in big races will run the same risk that cost them the governorship four years ago. In that race, the GOP went for former Portland Trailblazer Chris Dudley, who turned out to have a lot of baggage, including in how he paid taxes.
This time around, they’ve gone with Dr. Monica Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon who coasted to an easy win in the primary Tuesday over a more-experienced but less appealing Republican legislator, conservative Jason Conger of Bend.
Wehby, 51, will face Sen. Jeff Merkley, a first-term Democrat who won in the big Obama sweep six year ago. She will have money, but the source of some of that money is also part of her problem.
In her election-night victory speech, Wehby was forced to recognize that questions about her own personal judgment and her connection to a Republican kingmaker cannot be dodged in the fall. The Oregonian’s Jeff Mapes, dean of the state’s political reporters, led his Wehby story on Tuesday with a mention of the “personal controversy that dogged the last days of her primary race."
Mapes referred to a story originating in Politico that revealed calls in 2013 to Portland police from Wehby’s former boyfriend, wealthy timber executive Andrew Miller, complaining that she was stalking him and harassing his employees. No charges were filed and Miller has since said he regrets making the calls. Miller, one of the largest contributors to Republican campaigns in Oregon, is helping fund Wehby’s campaign.
The incident, however, was not the first of its kind. Wehby’s former husband, Jim Grant, also called police in 2007 when the couple was divorcing. No charge was filed.
Wehby plays heavily on her physician background, urging voters to “Keep Your Doctor, Change Your Senator.” Wehby is one of 30 doctors running for Congress this year, mostly Republicans, and in her early campaigning she stressed her medical background and expertise in health care.
Wehby’s medical practice includes a procedure known as tethered cord surgery, which has been criticized by some in her field. It will also figure in a criminal case against a Grants Pass woman accused of harming her children with unnecessary medical procedures, some of which were conducted by Wehby, who is not charged in the case. Wehby has strong support in the medical community, however; she is a past Oregon Medical Association president, and has been on the board of the American Medical Association. The American Association of Neurological Surgeons recognizes the surgery, which deals with what can be serious problems caused when the spinal cord attaches to other nearby tissues.
In some cases, a candidate’s personal baggage can be outweighed by a strong history of public office, but Wehby has none. In her primary campaign, faced with a strong conservative in Conger, she deliberately stayed away from defining her views on major issues. She criticizes the Affordable Care Act — which Merkley voted for — but has not said it should be repealed. She describes herself as personally opposed to abortion, but supports the right of others to choose, and supports gay marriage.
That profile on social issues did not seem to hurt her among the state's Republican primary voters, as she picked up 53 percent support, Her major opponent, legislator Conger, faded badly to only 35 percent.
Oregonians tend to be center-left in approaching statewide races; since Merkley defeated Sen. Gordon Smith in 2008, the state has had no Republicans in statewide office.
Merkley’s upset of Smith, a moderate in the GOP caucus, shot him into prominence after working out of the spotlight for most of his career, including as an analyst with the Congressional Budget Office and then for Habitat for Humanity. He won a legislative seat in 2003 and was elected Speaker of the Oregon House in 2007. Merkley grew up in blue-collar east Multnomah County; in the Senate, he has been an advocate for the middle class, winning support of liberal and progressive organizations such as Moveon.org and Credo.
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