Despite Drama, Oregon GOP Choice Comes Down To Purity, Practicality

Originally published on May 21, 2014 10:20 am

Two Republicans with compelling personal stories are vying for the chance to unseat Oregon's incumbent Democratic senator, Jeff Merkley. Monica Wehby is a doctor with a rare specialty: She performs brain surgery on kids. Her chief opponent, Jason Conger, rose from extreme poverty to attend Harvard Law School in just a few years. The Northwest News Network's Chris Lehman reports on the GOP primary as it unfolds.

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In Oregon, the competition among Republicans vying to take on incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley has been pointed. The two leading GOP candidates in today's primary are Monica Wehby and Jason Conger. It's a decision between ideological purity and general Election Day practicality. And if you were a screenwriter working on a movie about either of them, you'd have no shortage of material.

Chris Lehman of the Northwest News Network reports.

CHRIS LEHMAN, BYLINE: Let's start with attorney and state representative Jason Conger.


LEHMAN: That's a web video produced by the Conger campaign. Its title: "Jason Conger: From Homeless To Harvard and Beyond." And yet, a real movie on Conger's life might not be as dramatic as one about his chief rival in the GOP primary.

Monica Wehby is a pediatric neurosurgeon. That means she performs brain surgery on kids. The real-life mom in this campaign commercial tells the story of the time Dr. Wehby performed life-saving surgery on her infant daughter.



LEHMAN: So let's review: an inspiring rags to riches story versus a doctor who saves the lives of children. Whose story is more compelling?

BILL LUNCH: In the general election, it can be pretty important.

LEHMAN: But for a primary, it might not. That's according to Bill Lunch. He's a retired Oregon State University political analyst. Lunch says primary voters are more in tune with candidates' actual policy positions than in a general election.

LUNCH: They care more about politics and they're better informed. That in turn means that these personal stories, while they're not completely punchless, don't have nearly as much impact as the ideological positions.

LEHMAN: On that score, Jason Conger leans decidedly more to the right than Monica Wehby. Conger is a two-term state representative from central Oregon. He's staked out conservative positions on issues like abortion, gay marriage and health care.

REPRESENTATIVE JASON CONGER: I believe that the Affordable Care Act has been a failure and has caused great harm.

LEHMAN: Conger's opponent is more moderate on many issues. But Wehby is also critical of Obamacare. She says the president and Congress tried to do too much at once.

DR. MONICA WEHBY: We've got to fix this health care law. You know, the goals were laudable for affordable access for everybody of high quality health care. But that's not what happened. You know, that's not what we got.

LEHMAN: Wehby's campaign has enjoyed national attention and national funding, in part because she is a high-profile female Republican. She's also come in for some scrutiny, including the recent unearthing of a police report that claims she entered an ex-boyfriend's house against his wishes. But despite the latest revelations, Wehby is still positioning herself as the candidate best suited to beat incumbent Democrat Jeff Merkley.

Political analyst Bill Lunch says she's trying to win over GOP primary voters who may be more inclined to support a conservative candidate. Lunch says in a sense, she's saying...

LUNCH: I am the more powerful candidate to win the general election. That's a practical appeal to partisans, so Republicans who care about winning the seat may respond to that one.

LEHMAN: Neither Wehby nor Conger has come close to matching incumbent Jeff Merkley in terms of campaign cash. The first-term Democrat has millions in hand and is prepared to vigorously defend himself this fall.

For NPR News, I'm Chris Lehman in Salem, Oregon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.