Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

Five Republicans, hoping to challenge Sen. Jeff Merkley, attend forum in Baker City

By Pat Caldwell


A large crowd greeted a group of Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate Wednesday night at the Sunridge Inn in Baker City.

The candidate forum andndash; sponsored by the Baker County Republicans andndash; showcased five individuals vying for the Republican nomination in the May 20 primary.

The winner will challenge incumbent Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, in November's general election.

Salem resident Mark Callahan, current Oregon House of Representative member Jason Conger (R-Bend), Portland residents Tim Crawley and Dr. Monica Wehby along with Jo Rae Perkins of Albany, were on hand to present their views and answer residents' questions.

The candidates fielded questions that touched on a wide spectrum of subjects. From health care to the future of Social Security and gun control, the candidates expressed their opinions and articulated their visions.

In his opening statement, Conger said that Republicans in Oregon face an historic opportunity to claim Merkley's Senate slot.

"America is ready for a new direction. You can almost hear the sound of the tide turning. The people of Oregon, for the first time in many years, are looking to Republicans for leadership," Conger said.

Conger touted his experience as a state lawmaker for Oregon House District 54 as one of his many strengths.

"Only one of us (at the session) is an elected lawmaker and unseated an incumbent Democrat. We need battle-tested Republican candidates," he said.

Crawley expressed a concern regarding federal interference, while Callahan also voiced alarm at what he perceives to be an unacceptable level of government intrusion on Americans.

"We don't want government interfering on our lives, spying on us," Callahan said.

Callahan said his campaign focuses on four imperatives andndash; integrity, character, honor and trust andndash; and he gently rebuked Conger's message that prior legislative experience is critical to an election victory.

"Serving in the Legislature for four years does not anoint someone to win in November," he said.

Wehby, who is the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Randall Children's Hospital in Portland, conceded she does not have a lot of experience in the political arena but she believes this might help her campaign.

"I'm not a career politician. They are the ones who got us into this mess," she said.

Wehby said her vocation as a doctor will pay dividends for voters if she is elected to the U.S. Senate.

"Doctors are problem-solvers," she said.

Health care is and will continue to be a big issue for Oregonians and the nation, Wehby said.

"And Jeff Merkley has lost credibility on this issue," she said.

Perkins told the assembly that the oath of office politicians utter when elected is more than just a sequence of words.

"It's time we get senators and representatives who will stop violating their oath of office," she said.

Perkins told the crowd that she is "all in" when it comes to her effort to unseat Merkley.

After the opening statements, local residents asked the candidates to speak in-depth on a number of issues.

One question centered on how the candidates plan to campaign successfully in the Portland metropolitan area, a Democrat stronghold that also boasts more than half the state's voters.

Conger said one key aspect to any Republican victory in the Portland area will be to entice "non-affiliated" voters. Approaching the election from a fresh angle will be critical, he said.

"We can win but we can't do it the way we did things in the past," he said.

Crawley said soliciting input from voters andndash; regardless of their affiliation andndash; is important to securing victory.

"Like in southeast Portland, it's been a point of mine to go to Democratic functions and meet folks," he said.

Callahan said there are a few fundamental elements voters tackle in their everyday life that can prove to be an important balance point for a prospective candidate.

"We are all Americans here. We are all fiscally conservative. We all know what is in our checkbook. We all know the NSA is spying on us and that is wrong," he said.

Another question from the audience about Obamacare sparked a uniform response from all the candidates: The troubled health care program should be scuttled.

"We are forced to purchase it. That is one of the most important elements that needs to be changed," Crawley said.

Callahan was even more vehement on his opinion about the program.

"I advocate for the full repeal of Obamacare. Obamacare is socialism," he said.

The candidates all seemed to be in agreement regarding another issue andndash; the common core education curriculum andndash; sparked by a question from the audience.

"Common core is a socialist, communist agenda," Perkins told the audience.

A question from another audience member touched on the future of the Social Security fund and whether it was right for lawmakers to dip into the massive budget to pay for other items.

"We have to honor the commitment we've made to our citizens that have paid," Wehby said. "It should not be used as a piggy bank."

Oregon District 60 Representative Cliff Bentz (R-Ontario) asked the candidates how they might overcome a perceived notion that Republicans are a party of old white men who are all pro-life. All of the candidates asserted they are pro-life but a few took issue with the sentiment that the GOP is hostile to women.

"This war on women that the Democrats are trying to paint us into is a hoax," Callahan said.

Though she said she is pro-life, Wehby deviated a bit from the other candidates by asserting the entire abortion issue was one that the government should not play a part in.

"I believe this is a personal decision between a women and her family, not a woman and the federal government," Wehby said.