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Koch-backed group jumps into Oregon Senate race, set to boost lagging Wehby

Monica Wehby greeted supporters at campaign headquarters in Oregon City after winning the Oregon Republican Primary race for Senate on May. 20. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)

Monica Wehby, an Oregon pediatric neurosurgeon, has become one of this cycle’s conservative stars on the strength of her résumé and strong victory over four opponents in the May GOP Senate primary —  and because of her gender. In a column, George Will wrote that given the primacy of health care in the nation’s economy, the Senate could use more physicians and that “another doctor may be coming, straight from the operating room to her first elected office.”  Mitt Romney endorsed her. Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell said women would love her. And Sens. Kelly Ayotte, John McCain and Susan Collins have all donated to her campaign.  Her match-up against the Democratic incumbent Sen. Jeff Merkley helps the GOP broaden their Senate map and their chances of taking the upper chamber in November. Now Wehby, whose catchy slogan is “Keep your doctor, change your Senator,” is about to get the biggest boost of her campaign, with the Koch-affiliated group Freedom Partners set to pour millions into a television ad blitz, according to the Oregonian. The influx of cash comes as Wehby is still introducing herself to voters in her match-up against Merkley, who, according to The Washington Post Election Lab, has a 99 percent of winning. Merkley also has the edge in fundraising, with about $6.7 million raised to Wehby’s $2 million, an uneven playing field that the outside money will help to level. Wehby’s campaign team, which is not allowed to coordinate with any outside groups, said they are still regrouping after a tough primary, with plans to continue to introduce Wehby to voters around Oregon throughout August.  Their internal polls show Wehby down by only two, while other public polls show Wehby lagging by double digits. “We don’t have any control over who or what comes into the race, but the willingness of outside groups to take a look means that Oregon is back on the map,” said Dean Petrone, communications director for Wehby’s campaign. “Outside groups like them wouldn’t be putting money in this early if they didn’t think there was a real opportunity in the fall.” Merkley’s campaign is trying to turn the Koch-linked investment into a liability, following a strategy already seen in several races, particularly in North Carolina, where Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan has faced a barrage of ads from Koch-affiliated groups. In advance of Wednesday, when the television ads are set to begin, the Merkley campaign put out a Web ad of their own, framing Wehby as a tool of the Koch brothers and big money interests. A call and e-mail to Freedom Partners was not returned. “There is a lot more money for being with the special interests than for fighting against them,” said Jamal Raad, a Merkley campaign spokesman.  “A lot of folks don’t know who she is yet, and it is important to let folks know that it’s not random money coming in. It’s coming in with purpose.” The Merkley campaign has already bought up $2 million in television ad time, reserved for the last five weeks of the campaign, which means that the Freedom Partners’ ads, the content of which is still unknown, will go uncontested for several weeks, giving Wehby a platform she has yet to see. The move could reshape the race, cutting both ways for the candidates. “It can help and hurt both candidates. It could help Wehby raise money, but hurt Wehby because her message could get drowned out by their message,” said Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University.  “For Merkley, the bad part of the Koch brothers is it’s better to have an opp0nent with no money. But he has been trying to peg Wehby as another D.C. Republican, and the Koch brothers allow him to do that.”

Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Fix.

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