U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley is facing his first re-election battle since he narrowly defeated Gordon Smith in 2008. The Obama effect that swept many Democrats into office that year is missing this time, and Republican anger over health care reform and other issues could mean trouble for Democrats in November.
That possibility has the two Republican front-runners slugging it out to take on Merkley, who faces only token opposition in the primary.
The Republicans are Monica Wehby, a Portland pediatric neurosurgeon with no political experience, and State Rep. Jason Conger, a Bend attorney with a compelling life story. Both candidates are highly intelligent and appealing, but if Republican voters want the best shot at unseating Merkley, they should choose Wehby.
Conger, 46, rose from poverty and homelessness to graduate from an alternative high school in Crescent City, Calif., eventually earning a degree from Humboldt State University and then Harvard Law School. He has represented his Bend district since 2010 and was re-elected in 2012 despite a slight Democratic registration edge. He earned respect for his work on public retirement system reforms and on Oregon's health care reform efforts, although thgenerated criticism from some Republicans who saw it as support for the national health care reform law.
Conger says he would work to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it. Wehby says repeal is not politically realistic, and favors repairing the act's flaws instead.
Conger also differs with Wehby on social issues. He opposes same-sex marriage and abortion in most circumstances. Wehby, a Catholic, says she personally opposes abortion but that government shouldn't get involved in women's choices. Similarly, she suggests gay marriage shouldn't be government's business either.
Wehby, 51, is a respected practitioner of a demanding medical specialty. She has the backing — and the money — of the national Republican establishment, who see her as the best chance to unseat Merkley in the statewide race in the fall.
Conger says he has the legislative background Wehby lacks and is the real conservative in the race.
That may attract Republican voters in the primary, but could prove a liability in November.
Wehby and Conger are both strong candidates. But Wehby is more likely to give Republicans a real shot at winning a statewide race for the first time since 2002.
State Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, is known in Salem for his budgetary expertise, working with Democrats in the evenly divided House to balance the budget in 2011. He's less well-known among voters outside Southern Oregon, which is an obstacle in his quest to challenge Gov. John Kitzhaber in November.
Still, the 11-year veteran of the House is the best qualified of six Republican candidates to take on Kitzhaber, and Republican voters should nominate him.
Richardson, 64, a trial lawyer, has made fiscal responsibility his primary focus in Salem. He is deeply conservative on social issues, but his campaign is emphasizing job creation and economic recovery, and he attacks Kitzhaber for the failure of Cover Oregon, the Columbia River Crossing and education reform, not for his positions on abortion or gay marriage.
We recommend Republican voters choose Dennis Richardson in the gubernatorial primary.