GOP Senate Candidates Highlight Personal Stories

May 12, 2014

The race for the right to take on incumbent US Senator Jeff Merkley is heating up in Oregon. And if you were a screenwriter working on a movie about either of his potential challengers in the upcoming Republican primary, you’d have no shortage of material. Correspondent Chris Lehman reports.

Let’s start with Jason Conger.

Oregon GOP candidate Jason Conger.
Credit Photo courtesy Oregon House Republicans.

Announcer on Ad: "He was born to 60's flower children, dealing with their share of drugs and dysfunction. His mother abandoned him. His father led an itinerant life. When he'd had enough, Jason struck out on his own."

That's a promotional video produced by the Conger campaign. The title? "Jason Conger: From Homeless To Harvard…and Beyond." It describes the Republican's rags-to-riches story. And yet, a real movie on Conger's life might not be that dramatic compared to one about his chief rival in the GOP primary. This one would unquestionably be a tearjerker.

Voice on ad: "My OB doctor called me and said there's something wrong with your baby's spine and that we needed to look at terminating the pregnancy. The world stopped."

You see, Monica Wehby is a pediatric neurosurgeon. That means she performs brain surgery on kids. And the real-life mom in this campaign commercial tells viewers that Doctor Wehby was the first person to give them hope…in this case, on the way to the operating table.

Voice on ad: "She just hugged me and kissed my forehead and she said it's gonna be okay sweetheart. I've got her, and I'm going to see you in a couple of hours. I gave her the most precious thing I had: I trusted her."

So let's review: an inspiring rags-to-riches story versus a doctor who saves the lives of children. Whose story is more compelling? For now, it might not matter. 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."

On that score, Jason Conger is decidedly the more conservative candidate in the race. And the two-term state representative from central Oregon makes no bones about it.

Conger: "I wouldn't be a Republican if I didn't think conservative ideas were better solutions to the problems we all recognize."

Oregon GOP candidate Monica Wehby.
Credit Photo courtesy Monica Wehby

Wehby has staked out more moderate positions on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion. But the two share disdain for the Affordable Care Act. Wehby says the president and Congress tried to do too much at once.

Wehby: "We've got to fix this health care law. The goals were laudable for affordable access for everybody for high quality health care. But that's not what happened. That's not what we got."

Wehby's campaign has enjoyed national attention and national funding. She enjoys a sizable fundraising lead over Jason Conger. But it hasn't been entirely smooth sailing. Democrats have filed an elections complaint alleging Wehby's campaign is coordinating its efforts with an independent Super PAC. And Wehby was a doctor for an Oregon woman accused of seeking unnecessary medical procedures for her children. Wehby isn't accused of wrongdoing but could potentially be a witness in the upcoming trial. Nevertheless, Wehby’s role as a pediatric neurosurgeon continues to be a big part of her campaign. Political analyst Bill Lunch:

Lunch: "Wehby has made good use of her personal story thus far. I think if Conger had more money, he probably would have made more use of his."

Whoever wins the Republican primary, you can expect first-term incumbent Democrat Jeff Merkley to vigorously defend his record during the general election. And so far he has more financial resources to get his message out than either Monica Wehby or Jason Conger.

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