Jason Conger • Republican PrimaryOf the two major candidates in this race, we probably agree on more issues with Dr. Monica Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon from Portland, than we do with state Rep. Jason Conger (R-Bend), a business lawyer.
Wehby supports marriage equality and Conger does not. Wehby’s position on abortion is a moving target but is certainly to the left of Conger, who is the Oregon Right to Life candidate in this race. And yet Conger is our choice.
Both candidates have compelling bios: Wehby fixes juvenile spines, and Conger was briefly homeless growing up and worked his way through community college to Harvard Law School.
But when it comes to preparation, knowledge of the issues and an ability to express the results of clear thinking, there’s no contest.
We asked all five candidates in this race a fairly simple question: which U.S. Supreme Court justice most closely mirrors your values? After one candidate named Justice Anthony Kennedy, Wehby piggybacked on the answer. After Conger gave a ringing endorsement of arch-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, Wehby awkwardly changed her answer to Scalia as well. (Outside the interview, she told us she really meant to say Chief Justice John Roberts, but that she actually likes Justice Samuel Alito best of all.)
A candidate is certainly entitled to change her mind. But watching Wehby fumble her way through a 90-minute job interview convinced us that, however skilled she may be with a scalpel, she could use a lot more training than her out-of-state political consultants have provided.
Republicans are using Obamacare as a major wedge this year. On this question, Wehby is all over the map. She touted the value of some provisions of the Affordable Care Act, such as those on pre-existing conditions.
A former Oregon Medical Association president, Wehby waffled endlessly when she tried to describe which parts of major health-care reform she might have supported in the past. When pressed, Wehby acknowledged she’d vote to repeal the entire ACA if the question was put to her in the U.S. Senate.
Conger, who clearly dislikes Obamacare, nonetheless had the common sense to support bills in the Oregon Legislature that would leverage its benefits to Oregonians. Wehby is trying to appeal to right wingers while preserving campaign rhetoric for the general election. Given her knowledge of the health-care system, and the stakes for Oregonians, her befuddling answers were at times disingenuous.
In two terms in the Oregon House, Conger has produced a conservative record that—as noted above—is often out of step with our views. But at least he has clear, consistent positions. He’s shown strong support for charter schools but also crossed the aisle to push for legislation calling for toxic-chemical labeling and criticizing corporate welfare. He’s tough and sometimes too enamored of the sound of his own voice. But he’s far more prepared than Wehby to stand up to incumbent Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and give Merkley a serious challenge.
Also running: IT consultant Mark Callahan, lawyer Tim Crawley and former Linn County Republican Chairwoman Jo Rae Perkins.
Who Conger would be if not himself: “George Washington. He turned down the chance to be king.”
Jeff Merkley • Democratic PrimaryOne thing that always impresses us about candidates is their willingness to show their independence and stand up against powerful interests, whatever their political stance.
For Jeff Merkley, a rookie senator from a small state, the easiest move in the world would be to go along with his party’s president. After all, President Obama’s big victory in Oregon in 2008 helped sweep Merkley into office and oust the incumbent, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.).
But instead, Merkley pushed back in early 2010 when Obama wanted to reappoint Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Merkley saw Bernanke as part of the problem that led to the U.S. economy’s meltdown in 2008.
Merkley lost that battle but prevailed last year, when he led the fight against Obama’s plans to name former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers to replace Bernanke. Merkley and his allies made clear they wouldn’t stand for Summers, and the job eventually went to Janet Yellen. It wasn’t just a winning fight for Merkley, but the right one for the rest of us.
His attention to the nation’s financial system extends to looking out for consumers’ best interests. His legislation ended practices of home buyers being steered to “teaser”-rate mortgages that have low initial interest rates but balloon in costs later. He also authored the ban that stopped lenders paying what amounted to kickbacks to financial institutions that originate mortgages. He’s called for an end to payday loans, something that as a state legislator he helped end in Oregon.
Perhap Merkley’s top achievement, however, was helping pull off one of the most important reforms the Senate has seen in years.
A single senator can bring the entire chamber to a halt with a filibuster—or just the threat of one. This parliamentary move has been on the rise in recent years as a stalling tactic responsible for gridlock in the Senate, where provincial traditions hold sway.
Merkley helped lead the winning fight last fall to limit when the filibuster can be used. It’s a wonky topic, but Merkley is a wonky guy, and his reform has meant meaningful change.
We’re less impressed with Merkley’s election-year pitch for raising cost-of-living increases for seniors collecting Social Security. Merkley argues the current increases aren’t enough and that tax hikes on incomes of over $250,000 would cover the costs. We’ll see if he’s as hot for the idea if he gets re-elected.
Merkley has only token primary opposition—William Bryk and perennial candidate Pavel Goberman.
That said, Merkley has had an impressive first term, yet he will attract major national money to oppose him because he is a freshman senator and he is running for re-election in a year that could be tough for Democrats, even in a blue state like Oregon.
We’re always in favor of a vigorous general-election debate, and we think Merkley will get one whether his GOP rival is state Rep. Jason Conger (R-Bend) or Dr. Monica Wehby.
Vulnerable or not, we think Merkley has had a first term of which he can be proud.
Who Merkley would be if not himself: Former Oregon Gov. Tom McCall.