Monica Wehby's overhyped disaster: Why the Republican's falling flat in Oregon

Too much faith in Obamacare's toxicity led the right to call Wehby the Democrats' "worst nightmare." Not quite

Published June 16, 2014 11:43AM (EDT)

Monica Wehby       (AP/Steve Dykes)
Monica Wehby (AP/Steve Dykes)

There was a time, not long ago, when certain conservative pundits were brimming with confidence at the Republicans’ prospects for picking up Senate seats in November. The GOP wasn’t just prevailing in the toss-up races – they were “expanding the map” and fielding credible challenges to Democratic incumbents generally considered to be “safe.” Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post offered perhaps the best expression of this phenomenon in an April 3 post that listed pretty much every race for a Democrat-held seat as being in play. “The playing field for control of the Senate has expanded beyond what even Republicans imagined would be possible.”

Much of the enthusiasm for the Republican “wave” centered around Monica Wehby, the Oregon neurosurgeon who is challenging Sen. Jeff Merkley. Oregon is a very blue state, but in Wehby Republicans felt they had found a candidate who could take on Merkley and win. She’s a moderate who takes a hands-off approach on same-sex marriage and claims to support abortion rights while being pro-life herself.

But the most important factor in Wehby’s perceived strength was the Affordable Care Act. Oregon’s attempt to set up its own health insurance exchange under the law was a dramatic and expensive failure, forcing the state to give up and switch over to the federal exchange. Wehby, as a doctor, brought a certain level of professional gravitas to her attacks on Obamacare. “Obamacare Failures May Put Oregon Senate Seat in Play for GOP,” read a May headline at “Dr. Wehby is therefore Democrats' worst nightmare,” Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel wrote. “She's a policy wonk, able to run rings around Oregon's junior senator, especially on health-care reform.”

And there were some reasons to think they might have been on to something. Wehby’s fundraising was pretty good. She released a widely acclaimed ad featuring a patient who told the story of how Wehby repaired her daughter’s spine. A month before the primary, a Daily Caller/Vox Populi poll showed her leading Merkley in a head-to-head matchup by 4 points. On primary night she cruised to victory, taking 51 percent of the vote in a crowded field.

Since then things have cratered for Wehby. Every poll released since her primary win has shown Merkley ahead by double digits. FiveThirtyEight puts Wehby’s chances of victory at just 5 percent. The New York Times, as of this writing, gives her a less than 1 percent chance at victory. Wehby’s campaign, meanwhile, has been releasing internal polls to argue the race is much closer – never a sign of a healthy campaign.

She’s also been dogged by reports that she harassed her ex-husband and an ex-boyfriend. While those allegations seem to be a touch overblown, her response to them has been terrible, belying her image as a savvy campaigner. Asked by a reporter about the harassment issue, Wehby tried to spin it as proof that she’s “a person who will stand up for what I believe in.”

On healthcare, the issue that was supposed to be her strongest selling point, Wehby’s policy positions have been taking fire from both left and right. Huffington Post reporter Sabrina Siddiqui catalogued Wehby’s various shifting positions on repealing Obamacare. National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru broke down Wehby’s proposed “fixes” to the Affordable Care Act and concluded that they won’t work. “In the effort to take the popular side of every health-care question,” Ponnuru wrote, ”Wehby has come up with a plan that doesn't hang together.” Ponnuru’s critique drew an angry response from Wehby’s campaign manager, who accused Ponnuru of not actually reading the plan. “I read Wehby's plan more than once,” Ponnuru responded. “No matter how many times I read it, though, I couldn't make it make sense.”

So what explains Wehby’s decline from “Democrats’ worst nightmare” to spinning harassment charges as stick-to-itiveness and picking healthcare policy fights with conservative columnists? Let’s call it the Obamacare Overexuberance Factor, or OOF.

Coming into the 2014 election cycle, Republicans were dead set on the notion that the Affordable Care Act was so catastrophically toxic that they could just sit back and let it take down any Democrat who’d touched it. “Total poison across the country,” was how Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus described the health law when he predicted a GOP “tsunami” in March. With Oregon’s health exchange falling to such crippling problems, Merkley seemed like precisely the sort of candidate who’d have been vulnerable to an anti-Obamacare campaign. Conservative pundits, eager to push Obamacare as a liability, latched on to Wehby as the sleeper indicator of a coming Republican wave.

But even with the Affordable Care Act’s problems in the state, the climb for Wehby in Oregon was still a steep one, particularly for a first-time candidate. As unpopular as Obamacare may be, in Oregon the Republican Party is also widely disliked. “The Republican brand is in a sad state across the country, but particularly so in places like Oregon,” pollster Geoffrey Garin told the Washington Post. And Merkley enjoys the advantage of incumbency in a state Barack Obama won by 12 points in 2012.

It’s certainly possible that Wehby can turn it around, and it seems unlikely that Merkley will win by 18 points (his margin in the most recent polling), but for now it looks like Wehby is a victim of the Obamacare Overexuberance Factor. Pundits built her up on the assumption that Obamacare would take Merkley down. That doesn’t seem to be happening, and Wehby is struggling to live up to the hype.

By Simon Maloy

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