WASHINGTON — Uncertain times can attract nontraditional, distinctive candidates in American politics.
Pediatric neurosurgeon Monica Wehby, a Portland, Ore., doctor running as the Republican challenger to Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, is among a few novices seeking seats in the U.S. House, Senate and governors’ mansions across the country this November, competing for the attention of an electorate weary of Washington infighting.
A petite, soft-spoken mother of four who, as a physician, has been vocal about the failings of the Affordable Care Act, Wehby said frustrated patients inspired her to run.
"There is almost a palpable sense of frustration coming out, that this is the best it is going to get," Wehby told the Tribune-Review.
"Doctors are sometimes like bartenders or hairdressers — people come in and talk to you about all of these issues that affect their lives. … It has allowed me to understand how people feel and what their concerns are."
Merkley, a freshman senator who beat a two-term Republican in 2008, recently wrapped up an eight-town "Protecting the Promise to Our Seniors" tour to discuss Social Security and Medicare. With a vow to "save the middle class," Merkley won the endorsement of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare, a nonprofit advocacy group.
His campaign declined to make him available for an interview but emailed a statement saying Merkley believes "this election is about having a senator in Washington who fights for the middle class and puts Oregon’s priorities first."
The race in Oregon — like those in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and West Virginia — could help the GOP regain control of the Senate, experts say. Republicans need a net gain of six seats.
President Obama’s low voter approval ratings could help: A McClatchy-Marist poll last week found that, for the first time during this election year, more people — 43 percent to 38 percent — said they would rather vote for a Republican than a Democrat for Congress.
Yet in Oregon, polling averages compiled by Real Clear Politics show numbers ticking up for Merkley in recent weeks, to a 14-point lead.
Wehby lagged in donations, raising about $2 million, or less than a third of Merkley’s more than $6.5 million, until Freedom Partners, affiliated with the libertarian Koch brothers, kicked off a $3.6 million television advertising campaign this week that aims to elect her.
That investment will help her attract more money, said Lara Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University.
Wehby said she spends much of her time traveling the state to meet voters.
"I ask folks if they think their children will have the same opportunities that they had, and nobody ever raises their hand. It’s just so sad," she said.
Like Merkley, Wehby is making the race one of clear choice. Her slogan, "Keep your doctor, change your senator," is designed to appeal to those impacted by Oregon’s messy rollout of Obamacare. The state’s version of the insurance-selling health care exchanges, called Cover Oregon, has not worked in spite of its $250 million, taxpayer-paid price tag. The Government Accountability Office, the Justice Department and the House Oversight Committee are investigating, The Oregonian reported.
Though Wehby’s stances match those of independent and libertarian voters tired of big government, bureaucratic scandals and oppressive regulations, she is adamant that her job as a senator would be to vote in line with her constituents, not a political party.
"We want someone who is going to look at an issue from all sides. Doctors are very logical people, not ideological," she said. "Things are more polarized than they have ever been, and (Merkley) is part of the problem. Depending on the year, he votes lockstep with the Democrats and (Majority Leader) Harry Reid.
"That is not who we are as Oregonians. We are very independent-minded. We don’t agree with anybody 98 percent of the time — much less Harry Reid."
From 2009 to 2012, Merkley voted with his party, on average, 94.4 percent of the time, according to The Political Guide, which tracks congressional votes.
Because she is not a "traditional Republican," Wehby "fits her state well," Brown said. And because this midterm election likely will favor Republicans, she said, "if there’s going to be a time when a Republican may be able to win in a blue state, this is likely it."
Kyle Kondik, a political analyst with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, predicts the Democratic brand nationally would need to worsen significantly for Wehby to win.
"Something could happen to change the course of this race, but whatever that would be has not happened yet," he said.
Kondik points to serious challenges for Wehby in a Democratic-leaning state where a Republican has not won a presidential election since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
"Additionally, Oregon has an all-mail voting system that helps with turnout and that Democratic and Republican operatives cite as an impediment to the GOP there," he said.
Wehby says she is not deterred by poll numbers or mail voting. In 2011, she won a spot on the Board of Trustees for the American Medical Association, becoming an influential voice until stepping down in October to run for Senate.
"I ran as a change agent," she said of the AMA election, in which she had promised to look at the industry from all sides. "Any good business owner knows you want people on your board with differing backgrounds and experiences or you get blindsided by problems."
Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at [email protected]