In Oregon Senate GOP Primary, Beltway Favorite vs 'Homeless to Harvard' Underdog

In Oregon Senate GOP Primary, Beltway Favorite vs 'Homeless to Harvard' Underdog

The Republican Senate primary in Oregon on May 20 is emerging as one of the most interesting races in the country. The seat, currently held by one-term incumbent Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), has suddenly come in play, at least in the minds of some Republican leaders, due in part to the scandals related to the state of Oregon’s failed implementation of an Obamacare exchange. 

Despite the Cook Political Report’s recent April 25 finding that still rates the race “Solid Democrat,” the surprising possibility that Oregon might be in play in the 2014 general election means it could be one of the six Senate seats Republicans need to take from Democrats to become the majority party in the Senate.

The race is also notable for the compelling personal stories of the two leading candidates and the groups who support them, pediatric attorney Monica Wehby and “Homeless to Harvard” attorney Jason Conger.

Wehby grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. Her father was a C.P.A. and her mother was a registered nurse. She attended Notre Dame University and Baylor Medical School and moved to Portland in 1998 to become director of pediatric neurosurgery at Randall Children’s Hospital. 

Wehby’s campaign has run a highly effective, emotional ad showing the mother of one of her pediatric patients speaking eloquently over tears about how Wehby saved her daughter’s life. The ad has run on both cable and network televison in Oregon. The YouTube video of the ad has generated more than 100,000 views.

Conger has his own heart-tugging story, told in a five minute YouTube video of his journey from “Homeless to Harvard.” 

Conger was born in California to “hippie parents.” His mother abandoned the family when he was a child, and Conger grew up with his father, moving from trailer park to trailer park on the wrong side of town. In order to escape a dysfunctional family situation, Conger moved out on his own. For a period of time in high school he was homeless. 

Working any job he could get, he paid his way through community colleges, and then Humboldt State University in California. After he graduated from Humboldt State, he did well enough on his LSATs to be accepted at Harvard Law School, where he enrolled and graduated three years later.

Married just out of high school, the father of five lives with his wife in Bend, Oregon now, where he is a partner with the respected law firm of Miller & Nash.

In 2010, Conger was elected to the Oregon House of Representatives, and was re-elected in 2012.

A key selling point for Conger is that he knows what it’s like to be poor. “He’s not your average Republican,” says the liberal local radio talk show host on his YouTube video.

Benenson Strategies poll conducted April 14 to 17 gave Merkley a 50 percent to 32 percent lead over Conger and 52 percent to 30 percent lead over Wehby.

A recent poll conducted by Republican consulting firm Vox Populi showed Wehby in a statistical dead heat with Merkley. It did not match up Conger vs. Merkley.

Mitt Romney’s endorsement of Wehby on Thursday, following on the heels of her endorsement on Tuesday by Newt Gingrich, showed top Republicans are backing her candidacy. Officially, the National Republican Senate Committee is neutral, but a recent memo authored by Political Director Ward Baker sings the praises of Wehby and makes no mention of Conger.

Wehby also holds a substantial financial advantage over Conger, having raised $591,000 in the first quarter of 2014, with $741,000 in cash as of March 31, 2014, according to the report her campaign filed with the Federal Election Commission. Conger, in contrast, raised only $64,000 during the same period, with $89,000 in cash, according to his first quarter report filed with the FEC.

Both candidates broadly claim to be conservatives, with the most significant difference coming on the issue of abortion. Conger is pro-life, Wehby is pro-choice.

Both candidates also criticize Obamacare, but neither can pass the test of having consistently opposed every aspect of it from the beginning. 

Oregon Live reported that “Conger has been forced to defend his legislative votes in favor of setting up Oregon’s health insurance exchange, saying it seemed the best option at the time under the federal law.”

Such a position may have destroyed a Republican challenger in a predictably conservative state, but Oregon has been, for the most of the past two decades, a very liberal Democratic state that occasionally elects Republicans.

Wehby, for her part “has defended her support for a bill sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., that included a health insurance exchange and an individual mandate to buy insurance, two elements of Obamacare frequently criticized by Republicans. She says Wyden’s plan was bipartisan, more market-friendly and didn’t add to the federal debt.”

Of the two, Wehby’s position is less palatable to conservatives, but Conger wins no awards for his.

Wehby also “talks up a Medicare plan proposed by the American Medical Association, of which she was once a board member. The plan would allow doctors to individually contract with Medicare patients to charge more than the Medicare fee schedule.”

Conger opposes the plan, which he says helps create “this underclass of poorer Medicare patients who have even less access, presumably, or at least that’s the risk.”

With her significant financial advantage, high-profile endorsements, and favorable polling, Wehby’s team may think she’s ahead of the game and doesn’t need to “punch down.” For example, Wehby rejected a proposal to debate Conger on a local television station prior to the May 20 primary.

But a negative ad campaign involving Wehby’s friend with whom she has been romantically linked, lumber executive Andrew Miller, has raised eyebrows.

As Oregon Live reported in April “Stimson Lumber chief Andrew Miller and Nevada businessman Loren Parks have funneled $106,000 into an advertising campaign attacking GOP Senate candidate Jason Conger, a state representative from Bend.”

The funds were contributed to an independent expenditure committee (a Super PAC) with the unusual name “If He Votes Like That in Salem Imagine What He Will Do In Congress.” Under federal election law, independent expenditure committees are prohibited from coordinating marketing activities with the campaigns of candidates they support, or who are running against candidates they oppose.

According to an amended first quarter 2014 report filed by the committee with the Federal Election Commission on April 14, Parks contributed $75,000, while Miller contributed $25,000. Miller also made a $5,950 in-kind donation for billboard space used by the committee, bringing his total cash and in-kind contributions to $30,950.

As Oregon Live reported, “Miller has been romantically linked to . . . Wehby, Conger’s chief rival in the race for the Republican nomination to oppose Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. However, people connected to the committee and to Wehby’s campaign insist the Miller-Parks committee is operating independently as required by federal law.”

Despite claims by Gregg Clapper, who handled the advertising campaign for the Miller funded Super PAC that there was no coordination between the Super PAC and the Wehby campaign, and Wehby’s campaign manager Charlie Pearce’s recent statement that “[w]e’ve had no coordination with this group, with anybody funding this group and that’s it,” Conger is not buying it.

In a statement, the Conger campaign said it was “nasty, false, illegal advertising.” Conger also suggested, but did not assert, that the Wehby campaign had coordinated with the Miller funded Super PAC.

A contribution by the spouse of a candidate to an independent expenditure committee supporting that candidate and opposing other candidates in the same race would almost certainly be considered illegal coordination under the law by the Federal Election Commission. 

While it is unclear if a similar contribution from a “romantically linked” friend to a candidate would also be considered illegal, it would seem that the burden to prove that no coordination took place would be on candidate Wehby and her “romantically linked” friend Miller in the event a formal complaint were filed with the Federal Election Commission by Conger.

Though the Conger-Wehby race is not the classic “Tea Party vs. GOP establishment” match up, conservatives seem to be lining up behind Conger.

Conservative icon Richard Viguerie, for instance, has endorsed Conger, as have the Oregon Firearms Federaton and Oregon Right to Life.

Despite a more conservative perspective that aligns with many of the Tea Party Movement’s core values of fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets, Conger cannot be described as “the Tea Party endorsed candidate.” In Oregon, the Tea Party is not as significant force as it is in many other states, and local Tea Party groups, for the most part, have not jumped into the endorsement game in the Republican U.S. Senate primary.

One fringe challenger, Mark Callahan, a perennial gadfly who has been a member of three different political parties over the past decade and recently filed for personal bankruptcy, espouses the limited government values of the Tea Party, but has received no endorsement from local or national Tea Party groups. Mainstream press outlets, including the New York Daily News and NewsMax, have erroneously described Callahan as “the Tea Party-backed” candidate.

Whether Conger or Wehby emerge victorious on May 20, the winner will have an uphill battle in November’s general election against Merkley.