PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Republicans will decide between a state legislator from central Oregon, a doctor from Portland and three other candidates as they pick a nominee to take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley in November.
Dr. Monica Wehby has excited Republicans in Washington, D.C., who hope she's the perfect candidate to attack President Barack Obama's health care law without the sort of gaffes that Democrats have used to portray the party as out of touch with women.
The rollout of Obama's health care law was disastrous in Oregon, where senior officials enthusiastically embraced it but spent millions on a failed enrollment website.
"Doctors are logical, not ideological," Wehby said at a debate Friday. "You listen to the patient, look at the data, then you diagnose the problem" and find a solution.
State Rep. Jason Conger of Bend, the early front-runner, has struggled to raise money and attention since Wehby jumped into the race. He's focused on mobilizing conservatives.
"It has to be a Republican who can unite Republicans," Conger said. "It has to be a Republican candidate who can win a long-shot election, who can appeal to voters who are not already convinced."
Also in the race are Mark Callahan, a Salem information-technology consultant; Tim Crowley, a Portland lawyer; and Joe Rae Perkins, a former financial planner from Albany.
Wehby was embarrassed late in the race by revelations that her ex-husband and a former boyfriend both called police as their relationships were deteriorating and accused Wehby of harassing them. The boyfriend, timber-company executive Andrew Miller, later helped fund a super PAC attacking Conger. He said his accusations to police were exaggerated and he regretted them. Wehby said "there really isn't much to it of consequence," blaming their revelation on "the cost of challenging the political status quo."
No charges were filed in either incident.
Whatever damage might have been inflicted will be limited, however, because 21 percent of Republicans had already voted. In the primary two years ago, only 47 percent of total registered Republicans cast a ballot.
Wehby, 51, has kept her eye on the general election, portraying herself as a political outsider. She has largely ignored her Republican rivals and focused on attacking "Obamacare" and Merkley. She's staked out moderate positions on social issues — she says the federal government shouldn't get involved in abortion or gay marriage — and says her background as a doctor gives her the expertise to fight the federal health care law.
Conger, 45, is running to Wehby's right. He says her stands on social issues are out of step with the Republican Party and pitches his experience winning elections in a Democratic district.
Conger has emphasized his biography, overcoming a hardscrabble childhood to graduate from law school. "From homeless to Harvard," reads the slogan on his campaign literature.
Whoever wins will face an uphill climb against Merkley, a first-term Democrat who narrowly defeated a Republican incumbent in 2008. The Democratic Party has an 8-point edge in voter registration and Republicans have struggled for two decades to win statewide elections. While strong in rural areas, the GOP gets hammered in liberal Portland and has watched its influence erode in the city's suburbs in recent years.
If Republicans can put Merkley's seat into play, however, it would boost their efforts to rack up a net gain of six seats and reclaim control of the Senate.
Big donors have been key players in the race, nearly matching the candidates' own spending with about $1 million in independent expenditures. Three super PACs and a traditional political action committee have paid for television, radio and Internet advertisements, as well as mail and billboards, supporting both Wehby and Conger.
This story will be updated throughout Election Night.
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