PORTLAND, Ore. – “Are you kidding?” This is Monica Wehby’s amiable response to people who wonder whether she will be able to bear the pressures of office if she wins her race as a Republican Senate candidate. For 17 of her 52 years she has been a pediatric neurosurgeon, holding in steady hands sharp steel and the fate of children’s brains. She probably can cope with the strains of legislative life.
Today, her task is to persuade Oregonians to act on the cogent exhortation of her campaign’s bumper stickers: “Keep Your Doctor. Change Your Senator.” She is trying to take a Senate seat away from freshman Democrat Jeff Merkley, who was elected in 2008 with 49 percent of the vote when Barack Obama carried the state with 57 percent. This year, Merkley’s task is to run far ahead of Obama’s 43 percent job approval among Oregonians, with 54 percent of independents disapproving of the president.
Oregon is one of the 18 states and the District of Columbia that have supported Democratic nominees in at least six consecutive presidential elections. About half the state’s voters live in the Portland metropolitan area, which has become emblematic of urban progressivism (“smart growth,” autophobia). But from 1969 to 1995, both Oregon senators were Republicans, and Wehby’s pollster says Merkley’s two-point lead (41-39) derives from the incumbent’s perishable seven-point advantage in name recognition. Wehby is up one point among voters who say they “know” both candidates.
Wehby not only has two X chromosomes but supports abortion rights and the right of states to recognize same-sex marriages, which complicates the Democratic Party’s continuing accusation that Republicans wage “war on women.” Still, The Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel noted in a May 22 column (“A Democratic War on One Woman”) that Democrats were complicit in attempts to portray Wehby as having had an unstable romantic life. Never mind the selective prurience of some members of Bill Clinton’s party. Note, however, Strassel’s information: Of the two men with whom Wehby is said to have had tumultuous relationships, one, a former boyfriend, says he regrets his “emotional” behavior, and the other, her ex-husband, lives four doors from her, calls her a friend, and has contributed to her campaign.
Another Democratic theme is that all Republicans are extremists. Wehby, however, won 50 percent of the vote in a five-candidate primary in which her rivals accused her of moderation. Oregonians interested in real extremism should note that Merkley is co-sponsoring a constitutional amendment that would do something unprecedented: alter the Bill of Rights to reduce its protections. It would eviscerate the First Amendment by empowering Congress to regulate the quantity and content of political campaign speech, including speech about Congress.
The federal government owns 32.7 million – 53 percent – of Oregon’s acres, some of which are inhabited by sage grouses. These birds the size of chickens might be big enough to matter in November. The federal government, resourceful at devising ways to burden economic activity, might declare the bird an endangered species. This could have large economic consequences, so Merkley, caught between liberal environmentalists and timber and other agricultural interests, supports a measure that is pluperfect liberalism: Let’s spend $15 million to study how birds and bipeds can coexist.
Oregon had the worst of all the unpleasant experiences that states had with the Obamacare rollout. The FBI is investigating how the state managed to spend $250 million on an online insurance exchange that failed. Which is just one reason health care matters here.
Oregon’s largest employer is not Nike, which is only sixth. The three largest employers, and 13 of the top 25, are health care providers. But, then, in the archetypal Rust Belt manufacturing city of Cleveland, the largest employer is the Cleveland Clinic and the second-largest is another health care provider. Houston is America’s energy capital, but four of its five largest employers are in the health care field. Pittsburgh’s largest employer is the University of Pittsburgh, partly because of its medical center.
Given the enormous and growing role of medicine in this aging nation’s economy, it is unfortunate that only three senators are physicians – Wyoming Republican John Barrasso, an orthopedic surgeon; Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, an obstetrician; and Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist. Coburn is retiring, but another doctor may be coming, straight from the operating room to her first elected office.
Today, there are only eight senators who ascended to that institution’s glory, such as it is, without prior success in electoral politics. This, too, is probably too few.
George Will’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.