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She's A Doctor, Mom, and Republican - But Conservative Enough?

Oregon Republican Senate candidate Monica Wehby, right, talks to supporter Marvin Hausman in Lake Oswego, Ore. Wehby has drawn national attention and money in her effort to win her party's nomination.
Jonathan J. Cooper
Oregon Republican Senate candidate Monica Wehby, right, talks to supporter Marvin Hausman in Lake Oswego, Ore. Wehby has drawn national attention and money in her effort to win her party's nomination.

Monica Wehby is the Senate candidate Republicans have been waiting for: a camera-ready pediatric neurosurgeon, mother of four, in a party that desperately needs to elect more women.

Make that a candidate some Republicans have been waiting for.

The GOP establishment that wants her to be the party's Senate nominee in Oregon this fall has showered her with big money, attention and endorsements from the likes of Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and more than a dozen sitting senators.

But she's hit some resistance from conservatives — and from another Republican with a story as compelling as her own.

Wehby, 51, a moderate on social issues, is considered by many to be the best positioned Republican to put in play the blue state seat held by one-term Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley. And she's already begun developing a national profile.

"She would put this race on the map," says Jennifer Duffy, senior political analyst at the non-partisan Cook Political Report.

"Democrats," she says, already scrambling to defend more than a half dozen in-play Senate seats, "don't want that to happen."

In an early salvo, the Oregon Democratic Party this week filed an election law complaintclaiming that Wehby had improperly coordinated campaign activities with a super PAC supported by a lumber company executive she's close to.

But Wehby is also facing strong and familiar criticism from within her own party that she's not conservative enough on social issues – particularly on abortion, which she has said is a woman's choice.

"Monica Wehby has her way of describing herself as pro-life, which is a little disingenuous," says Gayle Atteberry, executive director of Oregon Right to Life. "She says she's pro-life because she saves little babies with her medical skills, but the fact is she supports abortion rights."

Atteberry's group, which is backing the other top candidate in the primary race, social conservative state Rep. Jason Conger, 46, has launched fierce radio attacks against Wehby.

With polling in the primary race both scarce and unreliable, it's unclear whether the attacks have gotten traction with GOP primary voters. Or, conversely, whether voters have been persuaded by Wehby's well-funded effort, including a heart-tugging ad that featured her life-saving medical work and attracted national attention.

Wehby defeated Conger 182-131 in an early March straw poll at the Dorchester Conference, an annual party event founded five decades ago by former GOP Sen. Bob Packwood. Some social conservatives, however, boycotted and held a separate event. (Conger shuttled between the two.)

"The race is clearly between Dr. Wehby and Jason Conger," says former state GOP chairman Perry Atkinson. "And the two are representing the differences within the Republican Party."

Atkinson, president of a Christian broadcasting company in Medford, Ore., where he hosts a weekday program, says he's been careful not to endorse either candidate. But he says he believes that nominating more moderate Republicans like Wehby has not paid dividends in the liberal-leaning state.

Ronald Reagan, in 1980 and 1984, was the last Republican to carry the state in a presidential election. And a Republican hasn't captured a statewide race in Oregon since 2002 when moderate Gordon Smith won his second term as U.S. senator.

Merkley, 57, defeated Smith in his 2008 reelection bid, the same year Obama won the state by a 16-point margin. Obama captured nearly 55 percent of the vote four years later in the high-turnout state where Democrats have an 8-point voter registration advantage over Republicans. (About a third of Oregon's voters are not affiliatedwith either major party.)

"This is the frustration – we haven't been able to get a moderate Republican elected to anything, yet the establishment side of the party keeps bringing these candidates forward," Atkinson says.

Wehby's position on abortion and her tacit support of same-sex marriage — government, she has said, shouldn't be involved in personal decisions — stand in stark contrast to Conger's opposition to both.

She's also being dinged by Conger backers for her 2008 support of health care legislation written by Oregon's other U.S. senator, Democrat Ron Wyden, which had similarities to the federal Affordable Care Act. Wehby in 2009 appeared in a national television ad strongly criticizing Obamacare, though she has subsequently expressed support for aspects of it.

"She is saying she wants to repeal and replace Obamacare," Atkinson says. "That's a red flag for conservatives – repeal is one thing, replace is just putting another government program in place."

In interviews, Wehby has advocated scrapping the ACA and starting over.

The issue of Obamacare is in play in Oregon, which recently scrapped a failed $248 million-plus health care exchange system, which Conger voted for, and began directing residents instead to the federal exchange system.

The failure was so catastrophic — no one was enrolled through the exchange — that it was featured in a segment on the recent debut of comedian John Oliver's cable talk show, "Last Week Tonight." The sharp, mocking episodemerited wide press coverage in the state, and illustrated the hurdle Merkley faces on the ACA issue in November.

"I think both Dr. Wehby and Jason Conger can whip Merkley," says state GOP chairman Art Robinson. "Both of them are very strong."

"Both candidates adhere to most Republican positions," he says.

National Republican leaders have clearly bet that Conger, the father of five and with a compelling biography that arcs from poverty and homelessness to Harvard Law School, will find his path to statewide success blocked by his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

Packwood, who represented Oregon in the Senate for more than 26 years before resigning under an ethics cloud in 1995, has been brutally blunt.

"I cannot pick a guaranteed winner," he said during the Dorchester event in March. "But I can pick a guaranteed loser. Jason Conger is a guaranteed loser."

Wehby's path, however, is not without its own complications. The Oregonian reported Wednesday morning that surgeries performed by Wehby are under scrutiny in a medical child abuse case brought against a woman accused of putting her children through unnecessary procedures. Wehby has referred questions to her employer, Legacy Health. The case goes to trial a day on the eve of the official primary day.

before the primary voting deadline.

Primary voting has already begun. Oregon is a vote-by-mail state, and election officials started mailing ballots to registered Republicans on April 30. Voting continues to the official primary day, May 20.

The editorial board of Portland's alternative newspaper, Willamette Week, last week surprised some with its endorsement of Conger in the GOP primary. The board allowed that while its members probably agreed on more issues with Wehby, they found her wobbly on some, and "all over the map" on Obamacare.

Conger, they concluded, is "far more prepared" to give the low-key, low-profile Merkley a stiff challenge.

Duffy, the political race analyst, however, rates the race in the "solid Democrat" category unless it's Wehby who emerges as the nominee. Then?

"I'll rethink the rating," she says. And the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, struggling to keep the party in control of the Senate, may have to cough up some money for a race strategists never expected to worry about.

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Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.