Democratic senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon is polling ahead of his potential Republican opponents, but his position is weak heading into his reelection campaign, according to a new survey by a GOP polling firm. Harper Polling found Merkley is ahead of two possible Republican opponents but is still polling less than 50 percent against them. Forty-seven percent say they would vote for Merkley over GOP state representative Jason Conger, who polled 40 percent, while 12 percent say they are not sure. Meanwhile, Republican Monica Wehby, a Portland-area pediatric neurosurgeon, trails Merkley by 12 points, 46 percent to 34 percent, with 20 percent saying they are unsure. The poll was taken among likely voters in Oregon.
On the generic ballot, a Democratic candidate has just a 3-point lead (45 percent to 42 percent) over a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. The poll also found that Merkley, a first-term senator, has just a 39 percent favorability rating, with 32 percent having an unfavorable opinion of him and 30 percent not sure. Meanwhile, 41 percent approve of his job in the Senate, while 33 percent disapprove and 26 percent say they aren't sure. Merkley has been a senator since 2009.
In Oregon, Obamacare is not faring well. The law's rollout has been particularly troubled in the Beaver State, as its state-run health insurance exchange, Cover Oregon, has struggled to stay up online and enroll customers in its early months. Two of Cover Oregon's directors have resigned since October of last year. The Harper Poll found just 41 percent approve of the law, about on track with national polls on the health care law, while 51 percent say they disapprove of it. Merkley voted for Obamacare in 2010.
Is Merkley likely to be thrown out of office in 2014? That can't be known from one, Republican-friendly poll. And as it stands, Republicans in Washington say they consider the Oregon race to be on its periphery of possible pick-ups. Both Republican candidates, Jason Conger and Monica Wehby, are vying for their party's nomination in a May 20 primary. Which candidate, if any, could beat Merkley?
Wehby comes from Portland, the liberal urban area and population center of the state. Any Republican hoping to win statewide would have to perform well, and probably win, in Portland's suburban ring counties, as two-term Republican senator Gordon Smith did in 1996 and 2002. As a woman, Wehby would be able to withstand or negate attacks on the GOP's "war on women," and her status as a pediatric neurosurgeon give her heft in a debate over the efficacy of Obamacare. But Wehby is also softly pro-choice and seen, perhaps fairly, as not conservative enough for the Oregon party. Furthermore, the Harper poll shows her in a weaker position against Merkley (though her unknown rating is higher than her primary opponent's).
Conger, the state representative from rural Central Oregon, is much more in line with the state party on issues like abortion, and this poll shows him within striking distance of Merkley. He's also no rube; after living on his own for part of his youth, including time on the streets, Conger eventually graduated from Harvard Law School. He was first elected to the state house in 2010 and reelected in 2012, rising through the ranks of leadership. But as a recent debate between the GOP candidates shows, Conger may be vulnerable on some his votes for spending bills.