SALEM, Ore. - Big donors are making their voices heard in Oregon's Republican primary for U.S. Senate.
Three super PACs and a traditional political action committee have reported spending at least $956,000 supporting or opposing the two leading candidates, State Rep. Jason Conger and Portland physician Monica Wehby, according to campaign finance records. A fourth super PAC has registered with the Federal Election Commission, but it has not yet reported raising or spending money.
Enabled by U.S. Supreme Court opinions on campaign finance, super PACs can raise and spend unlimited sums on federal races. They must report their activities to the Federal Election Commission and are prohibited from coordinating with candidates or their campaign teams.
The money in Oregon's Senate race has bought advertisements on television, radio, and the Internet, as well as mailers arriving along with ballots in Republicans' mailboxes.
Ballots must be returned by May 20, when they will be counted and results will be announced. The winner will take on Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley in the general election.
"We definitely are making a difference, and voters are hearing," said Gayle Atteberry, executive director of Oregon Right to Life, which has spent $192,000 through its traditional political action committee on radio ads, mailers, and other communication opposing Wehby. "We'll see how much they respond on Election Day."
Wehby is positioning herself as a centrist who can appeal to a general-election audience. She says that she personally opposes abortion but that the federal government should stay out of it, raising the ire of social conservatives.
Another social-conservative group, American Principles Fund, has spent $180,000 on TV ads criticizing Wehby and promoting Conger. The group is funded almost entirely by Sean Fieler, an executive at Equinox Partners L.P., a New York-based hedge fund.
Wehby's getting plenty of outside help from other quarters, however.
A super PAC called NewRepublican.org, founded by GOP strategist Alex Castellanos, has reported spending $491,000 to boost Wehby on television, radio, and the Internet. The group aims to "re-express conservative principles to fit our time" and "rebuild the Republican brand," said Gentry Collins, a GOP political adviser who serves as the group's treasurer.
The super PAC was formed last year, but it had spent very little money before backing Wehby. It's funded largely by five members of the DeVos family, which has donated extensively to conservative causes.
"We think Dr. Wehby has a compelling story to tell," Collins said. "We think she's particularly well-qualified for the office, and she's got a great profile from which to explain to voters why our principles work to get the country to a better place."
If she clears the primary, NewRepublican.org intends to continue backing Wehby in the general election, Collins said.