SEASIDE — Jason Conger did not waste time going on the attack in his debate against Dr. Monica Wehby at Seaside’s Dorchester Conference this weekend.
The Republican Party must fight the popular notion that the party is “rich and disconnected,” Conger said Friday night, “and we can’t do that by running a rich, disconnected Republican,” the Bend Congressman said of Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon from Portland.
“I think logically, not ideologically,” Wehby said in response, adding that Washington could use “more MDs than JDs,” referring to Conger’s Harvard law degree.
The debate between Conger and Wehby – who are seeking the Republican nomination to run against incumbent Democrat Sen. Jeff Merkley in November – was the main event on the first evening of the 50th Dorchester Conference, which took up residency all weekend at the Seaside Civic and Convention Center.
Dorchester was founded in 1964 by former U.S. Senator Bob Packwood when, after Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Republican Barry Goldwater, Oregon Republicans began asking, “How do we find candidates who can win general elections?” Packwood said to the crowd Saturday afternoon.
A Sunday straw poll of the five Republican Senate candidates – Conger, Wehby, Salem IT consultant Mark Callahan, Portland lawyer Timothy Crawley and former Linn County GOP Chairwoman Jo Rae Perkins – was aimed at determining just that: who had the best chance to unseat Sen. Merkley, who was frequently referred to as “vulnerable” by conference speakers.
Wehby bested Conger 182 to 131 in Sunday’s straw poll, with Crawley receiving 16 votes, Perkins seven and Callahan six.
Conger and Wehby were the only two candidates invited by the Dorchester committee to debate Friday night, and Perkins, for one, thought that the Conger-Wehby debate lacked substantive policy discussion.
“From a candidate standpoint, let’s just say that I’m very pleased they answered the questions the way they did, because there wasn’t enough meat for the burgers,” said Perkins, a constitutional conservative from Albany.
Had Perkins, Callahan and Crawley also been on stage, “the discussion would have been so different,” Perkins said. “You would have seen somebody actually answer the questions and not speak in platitudes.”
“I think it was a disservice to the audience,” Crawley said. “There could have been a more robust discussion.”
The two candidates were asked about a broad array of topics by debate moderator Jack Roberts, who said he could commiserate with the candidates not invited on stage: he had not been included in the Republican primary debate at Dorchester in 1995 for the same Senate seat, which was ultimately captured by Republican Gordon Smith.
The crisis in Crimea dominated much of the discussion on and off the stage; Roberts kicked off the questioning by asking Conger and Wehby how the United States should respond to the situation and deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I think this is a result of the failed Obama foreign policy,” Wehby said. “Our friends don’t trust us and our enemies don’t fear us.”
Conger offered a more detailed plan to address the situation in Ukraine.
“At the least, we should talk about economic sanctions, boycotting the G-8 Summit in Sochi and whether Russia should even be in the G-8,” he said.
Wehby later returned to Ukraine, Putin and the importance of American military might during a question about President Obama’s proposed cuts to the country’s armed forces since the end of the Iraq War and as the U.S. readies to leave Afghanistan.
“I think the world’s more dangerous than it’s ever been before,” Wehby said. “If we continue to shrink back our military forces, there are still people who want to attack us with guns and bombs and tanks. What happens if it comes to the U.S.? What happens if we get invaded?”
Aside from the debate and the straw poll, Dorchester also provided delegates with a chance to discuss several salient political topics – including NSA spying, the Affordable Care Act, the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and same-sex marriage – and vote on a plan of action for state Republicans.
Dorchester delegates broke from Republican orthodoxy when they voted to endorse a gay-marriage ballot measure, 233 to 162, Saturday afternoon.
Jeff Kubler, a fourth-year Dorchester attendee from Adair Village, participated in the same-sex marriage discussion and planned to vote “no.”
“I think traditional marriage is something we should defend – something we should tamper with at our own peril,” Kubler said. “Society’s always valued marriage and (said) it’s between a man and a woman.”
Kubler said he appreciated Dorchester’s open forum and the opportunity to discuss myriad relevant topics with other Oregon conservatives.
“It’s always an interesting time,” he said.
Dorchester has come a long way since its early years, when Packwood exercised total control of the event, down to assigning hotel rooms according to region or voting district, the event’s founder said Saturday.
“It was invite-only – you could only come if I invited you,” Packwood said.
“And there were some people I didn’t like,” he added with a laugh.
The Daily Astorian, 3.10.14. Link: http://goo.gl/XGJhxU