Democrats may have to worry about keeping U.S. Senate seat in Oregon

Dr. Monica Wehby Credit: Courtesy of the Wehby campaign

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.

Merkley, 57, relies on progressive groups for a large share of his campaign funding, and is also popular with labor unions. Although most national observers put the race in the Democratic column, Wehby stands to benefit from momentum if she can get past personal issues and make strong campaign appearances. Merkley is not a dynamic speaker, although he knows the issues and his 2008 win over Smith is evidence of his campaign abilities. If the race becomes targeted as a potentially critical seat in the national battle for control of the U.S. Senate, both sides should be able to tap deep pockets of cash from outside Oregon.

Thirty percent of Oregon voters are not affiliated with either major party; 40 percent are Democrats, 30 percent Republican, leaving the political middle a key for winning the general election.

In contrast to the Senate race, there seems to be less chance of a tight contest for the other major office on the ballot, the governorship. Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber is seeking and unprecedented fourth term, and his Republican opponent will be State Rep. Dennis Richardson, a conservative from Southern Oregon who easily defeated several challengers Tuesday. Richardson, a Mormon, is strongly anti-abortion and conservative on social issues. A lawyer in Central Point, he has served in the Oregon House since 2002 and was seen as a leader on key committees.

There have been signs and some poll results showing Oregonians are tiring of Kitzhaber, who served two terms (1995-2003), then sat out the governorship of Ted Kulongoski and was elected again in 2010. In Tuesday’s voting, Kitzhaber took 88 percent of the Democratic vote, with 10 percent going to a totally unknown Salem man who operates a trading company. Kitzhaber’s 227,803 votes were less than the 231,952 cast for Richardson and several other Republican candidates.

Kitzhaber, 67, is still fit and trim, but beginning to wear his age. Richardson, 64, is virtually unknown in the populous Portland area; he plans to move his residence and campaign from Southern Oregon to Portland next month.

The race will be Kitzhaber’s to lose and, with Republicans buoyed by Wehby’s chances in the Senate campaign, it may be hard for Richardson to attract significant funding. The Republican Governors Association says he has its support, but it’s not likely the RGA will fund Richardson as heavily as it did Chris Dudley’s losing race against Kitzhaber in 2010.

The incumbents in Oregon’s congressional delegation appear to be in good shape for November. The lone Republican, Eastern Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, turned back a Tea Party challenger by a 2-1 margin. Walden is a key ally to House Speaker John Boehner and heads the House GOP congressional committee. None of the four Democratic incumbents faced a major challenge.

That's a position in which Democratic Sen. Merkley might love to find himself as the battle for national control of the Senate heats up. 

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