Uphill Battle

Koch Brothers Bail Out GOP Senate Hopeful in Oregon

The “uphill battle” facing Monica Wehby in the Oregon Senate race is seen by the national GOP as a testing ground for Koch money and a chance to take control of the upper chamber.

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In politics, superstardom never lasts forever. Barack Obama entered the stratosphere with his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, but eventually became just another polarizing politician. And when Scott Brown won the 2010 Massachusetts special election for Senate, he spent a brief moment as a post-partisan dreamboat before eventually turning into just another political hack in a barn jacket.

But, for Monica Wehby, the Republican candidate for Senate in Oregon, her moment of glory didn’t even last a month. Wehby shot to success with a campaign ad at the end of the primary on May 20 that promoted her background as a career a pediatric neurosurgeon. But, in the run up to the vote, her campaign got into trouble when it was revealed that an ex-boyfriend had filed a police report against her calling Wehby “a stalker.” (Ironically, that ex-boyfriend, Andrew Miller, had also funded a superPAC on Wehby’s behalf which spent six figures attacking one of her GOP primary opponents.

The news of the police report, which broke four days before primary day, didn’t hurt Wehby in her quest for the GOP nomination — all votes are cast by mail in Oregon so it’s likely few voters could have been swayed. Instead, it left the candidate scrambling and her campaign flat footed. Instead of taking a victory lap, she was was dodging reporters. But while Wehby has since sunk in the polls and fallen well behind first-term Democratic incumbent Jeff Merkley, it doesn’t mean the race is over yet, even in a state as blue as Oregon.

Wehby’s race matters because in 2014, the key electoral battle is over control of the U.S. Senate. Republicans are hoping to pick up the six seats necessary to make Mitch McConnell majority leader and exercise veto power over the Obama administration's ability to appoint judges and officials. The goal for Republicans is to expand the battlefield as wide as possible to blue states like Oregon and stretch Democrats thin in the hope of beating enough incumbents to achieve their goal.

Freedom Partners, an Arlington, Va.-based group affiliated with the Koch Brothers, is set to drop $3.6 million dollars in the race on her behalf against Merkley. “Oregonians deserve effective leadership and Freedom Partners will continue to hold Sen. Merkley accountable for his bad votes on issues like Obamacare, and his ineffective record,” said James Davis, a spokesman for the group. But Freedom Partners’ decision to enter the fray is not just about animus towards Merkley, who is simultaneously one of the more liberal and more obscure members of the Democratic caucus in the Senate. Instead, there’s a hope that Wehby might actually win, albeit with difficulty.

One national GOP strategist described the race as one that has always been viewed “as a bit of an uphill climb” that could break their way with “the right candidate and the right circumstances.” And part of the right circumstances may be a big investment by an outside group like Freedom Partners. Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told The Daily Beast, “clearly, the only chance Monica Wehby would have of making the race competitive would be if the Kochs were going to dump millions of dollars into the race and they must be trying it out to see if they can do that.”

Money alone can’t help a Republican win a race in a deep blue state, however, as failed GOP candidates like Linda McMahon and Carly Fiorina can attest. Instead, Republicans like Art Robinson, the chair of the Oregon Republican Party, say that Wehby’s biography will help carry the day. Robinson says that if Wehby runs a strong campaign, she has “an excellent chance” of winning. Her biography as someone “who succeeded in life at something difficult” should sell well with voters, he added.

Nor are campaigns just about biography. There are issues and positions taken, too. While Robinson says Wehby isn’t “super conservative” and describes her “as moderate enough to please the liberal wing” of the Oregon GOP. National Republicans see her in the mold of moderates like Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, but Democrats disagree. They harp on her opposition to equal pay legislation and support for conservative legislation that would slash the budget like Tea Party-backed “cut, cap and balance” bill. This bill, which passed the House but failed in the Senate, would have cut federal spending, capped future spending at a percentage of GDP and encouraged a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

Oregon will always be an uphill battle for the GOP in the near future. While strong in rural areas, Oregon Republicans have struggled to win statewide races for 20 years, according to the Associated Press, and Democrats have an 8-point advantage in voter registration. And the most beloved Republican politician is the late Mark Hatfield, a former senator best known for his opposition to the Vietnam War and decisive vote against the Balanced Budget Amendment, positions that would put him solidly in the liberals’ camp today. But in a year where Republicans have their best chance to regain control of the Senate since 2006, betting the Koch’s money on Wehby may be worth a gamble.