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'll be counted and results 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 she personally opposes abortion but 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 television ads criticizing Wehby and promoting Conger. The group is funded almost entirely by Sean Fieler, an executive at Equinox Partners LP, 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 the "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, Gentry said.
A super PAC called "If He Votes Like That In Salem Imagine What He Will Do In Congress" has reported raising $100,000, three-quarters of it from Nevada businessman Loren Parks and the rest from Andrew Miller, chief executive of Stimson Lumber in Portland. Both are prolific donors to Republican candidates in Oregon.
After deducting operating expenses, the super PAC says it's spent $93,000, largely on radio ads, mailers and billboards blasting Conger, saying he voted with Democrats on key issues important to Republicans.
The chairman of the Democratic Party of Oregon, Frank Dixon last week filed a complaint with the FEC alleging Miller illegally coordinated with Wehby, whom Miller describes as a friend he's "known for years." He denies the charge, saying he's done nothing more than donate the money.
"I have had no editorial input into that whatsoever. And have no input to veto anything," Miller said. "The person running that campaign (the super PAC), his condition was, 'You give me the money and you're going to have to trust everything I do, and that's it.' "
He got to see advertising hours before it went on air, but he had no ability to change the content, he said.
Another super PAC, Leadership Oregon Can Trust, registered with the FEC on May 2, but it has not reported raising or spending any money.
Follow AP writer Jonathan J. Cooper at http://twitter.com/jjcooper.