For 20 years, Oregon Republicans have ridden a losing streak, dropping 33 of 36 statewide races, including the last 19 in a row. So when Monica Wehby jumped into the race for U.S. Senate, many in the party were thrilled at the prospect of reversing the GOP’s sagging fortunes and moving the party a step closer to control of the upper chamber.
A widely respected pediatric neurosurgeon, she could speak credibly about healthcare, a major issue in light of the state’s disastrous rollout of the new federal law. A relative moderate on issues like abortion, immigration and same-sex marriage, she fit the mold of Republicans who have won statewide office in the past.
Then, just before the May 20 primary, reports surfaced regarding Wehby’s personal life — a bitter divorce, a difficult romantic breakup, calls to the police by her ex-husband and a former boyfriend, who both accused her of harassment. Suddenly, her candidacy came under much harsher scrutiny and Oregon became the latest testing ground in the ever-fraught battle over politics and gender.
Democrats, already pressed to keep their Senate majority, have quietly pushed the Wehby-as-stalker story, even as the incumbent, Jeff Merkley, distances himself to avert any backlash.
Republicans have seized on the revelations, unearthed by Democratic research, to accuse the party of waging a war on women, hurling back the phrase Democrats use to attack GOP candidates on issues like contraception and equal pay.
Celebrating her nomination at an election night victory party, Wehby accused Democrats of “dirty tricks” and “shred[ding] my family for their own political gain.”
“Tonight, we’re sending the message that this Senate race will not be decided by the kind of ugly politics that people in Oregon and across the country are so sick of,” Wehby said, as her four children joined her onstage.
It was one of the few times she addressed the matter in public. The 52-year-old first-time candidate has largely avoided reporters since the reports of domestic strife, a strategy that even sympathizers question.
“She needs to turn the campaign focus in the immediate term away from her and onto [Merkley],” said Dan Lavey, a longtime Oregon Republican strategist watching the race from the outside. “Her capacity to do that will probably determine whether she can be competitive or not.”
Wehby's personal travails have clearly taken a political toll. Two recent surveys show Oregon voters now view her more negatively than positively, an unusual position for such a newcomer. More significant was the drop-off in Wehby’s support in the May 20 vote.
Oregon conducts its elections entirely by mail, making it possible to track voter sentiments based on when ballots were cast. In early returns, Wehby led her Republican opponent, state Rep. Jason Conger, by just under 20%. In ballots mailed after reports of Wehby’s conduct surfaced, she beat the more conservative Conger by just over 1%. (Still, she easily won the GOP nomination.)
The details of her romantic discord are, like many relationships, complicated.
Four days before the primary, Politico reported that an ex-boyfriend, Andrew Miller, called police in April 2013 and accused Wehby of stalking him, entering his home without permission and harassing his employees. The pair had split after dating for about two years.
Interviewed for the story, Miller told Politico he regretted calling the police, describing Wehby as a friend and someone he likes and respects. Indeed, Miller — the wealthy owner of a timber company and a major Republican donor — gave more than $30,000 to a political action committee that attacked Conger in the GOP primary.
Then, on election eve, the Portland Oregonian reported that police were called in 2007 and 2009 by Wehby’s now ex-husband, complaining that she was repeatedly harassing him. The two were estranged at the time.
In a brief appearance on a conservative Portland radio show, Wehby said she and her former spouse now live four doors apart and have an amicable relationship. “This is the war on women here,” she told host Lars Larson. “Democrats, Republicans, no one should be doing this to their opponent, period. This has got to stop.”
Across the country, other GOP women have pressed that point, asserting that Democrats would be outraged if Republicans used a woman’s personal relationships as campaign fodder.
“Without a doubt there's a complete double standard,” said Katie Packer Gage, a Washington consultant who helps candidates target women voters. She accused Democrats of hypocrisy, saying they call Republicans hostile to women yet attacked Wehby “not on her positions, not on issues” but “this terribly unfair police report that probably shouldn’t even exist.”
At Republican national headquarters, party officials accused Merkley of engineering the release of the 2013 police document and called on him to fire the source who provided it for publication.
“My campaign had nothing to do with it,” Merkley responded after a Portland fundraising appearance this week alongside Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. “You may have noticed,” he told reporters, that he has not mentioned Wehby’s personal life in his campaign advertising or discussed it publicly in any fashion. He would prefer, Merkley said, a debate on issues.
His caution appeared well placed. Even among Merkley supporters, who lustily cheered Warren’s double-fisted attack on corporate greed, there was squeamishness about delving too deeply into Wehby’s private affairs.
“I wish politics wasn’t like that. It seems one of the factor these days is slamming people,” said Rebecca Kreag, 66, a retired state worker, even as her companion, Willa Fox, chimed in, “It’s a public record!”
That said, Fox suggested the police reports were relevant only to a point. “I don’t think it should be made any bigger than it is now,” the 71-year-old retired schoolteacher said. “I think it’s appropriate to go off it.”
But like unringing the proverbial bell, it may be difficult to undo the political damage already done to Wehby and her reputation.
History shows that female candidates have a harder time recovering once they’ve brushed against scandal, said Debbie Walsh, who directs the Center for American Women and Politics at New Jersey’s Rutgers University. Women seeking office start on a bit of a pedestal, seen as better and purer than male candidates, Walsh said, so “when they fall, it’s a tougher fall.”
When it comes to the details of Wehby’s case, though, some challenge the notion of a double standard, saying Republicans would jump on any Democratic candidate, male or female, with a similar record of run-ins — and Democrats would be just as swift to condemn the tactic.
“This is really, at the end of the day, all about politics,” Tim Hibbitts, Oregon's leading independent pollster, said of the partisan finger-pointing. Voters, he said, will evaluate Wehby’s conduct for themselves and decide whether or not it matters.
“She can keep ducking the press and going on friendly talk radio,” he added. “But to recover — and it’s possible — she needs to do a lot more than that.”