TIME 2014 Election

Oregon Race Is A Fight for the Soul of the Senate

Oregon Primary
With her children at her side, Dr. Monica Wehby greets supporters at the headquarters in Oregon City, Oregon after winning the Oregon Republican Primary race for Senate on Tuesday, May. 20, 2014. STEVE DYKE—AP

More than any other race in the country, Sen. Jeff Merkley’s re-election battle with GOP candidate Monica Wehby is about political dysfunction and who’s better to fight it

“I am running for Senate because I believe I can help. I’m exactly the person capable of changing things,” Dr. Monica Wehby told a crowd of supporters at her Oregon City campaign headquarters Tuesday night after winning the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate. “I’m not a career politician, they’re the ones who got us into this mess. But I am a Doctor [and] a mom.”

Wehby defeated State Rep. Jason Conger, a Tea Party darling, for the opportunity to deprive Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, of a second term. Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon, ran on a moderate platform of compromise and pragmatism. “I believe that polarization of opinion is ruining this country,” Wehby said. “This vilifying of others we disagree with has got to stop. Our greatest enemies are those who want to divide us. Because a house divided against itself cannot stand. We are better than this. We are the United States of America.”

At the beginning of May, Merkley sent out a press release lambasting Republicans for filibustering a Democratic attempt to raise the minimum wage. “Together, we led the effort to reform the filibuster and create a pathway for judicial nominees to move forward,” said Merkley, who led the fight to change the Senate rules to prevent the minority from filibustering most judicial nominations. “This week’s vote shows why we need to continue the fight for all our progressive values.” Merkley backs more rule changes to further ease the Senate logjam.

At stake in Oregon isn’t just a Senate seat in an election where Republicans could take control of both houses of Congress. It’s also a fight for the soul of the Upper Chamber and how things could and should be run. One of the major issues in the races has been who would deal better with Washington’s broken system. “There’s no question that this race is shaping up to be a referendum on political dysfunction,” says Jennifer Lawless, a political science professor at American University. “With congressional approval at an all-time low and public dissatisfaction with politicians and the entire political system at an all-time high, candidates have every incentive to signal to the voters that they can fix the way Washington does business.”

But, Lawless, continues, both candidates face challenges in making their respective cases. “Given the gridlock and stalemate associated with the Republican party, Wehby needs to figure out a way to distance herself from her party’s tactics,” she says. “Merkeley has a tough road to hoe, too. Beyond the fact that filibuster reform is a somewhat esoteric and not at all sexy campaign issue, he needs to convince voters that he hasn’t been part of the problem, even though he’s been in the Senate for the last six years.”

Merkley was elected six years ago with just 49% of the vote. A poll early last month found Merkley ahead by 12 percentage points, but a second poll done at the end of April showed Wehby ahead by 4 percentage points. Merkley entered the race prepared for a fight, raising more than $5 million. As of the end of April he had $3.7 million cash on hand compared to Wehby’s $350,000, much of which she likely depleted in the final days of her primary battle. Most observers rate this race solid or likely blue. But in a wave year, even Oregon could flip. It will depend on who makes the better case that he or she is the better salve for Washington’s dysfunction.

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