Group backed by Koch brothers launches ads in Oregon Senate race

Group backed by Koch brothers launches ads in Oregon Senate race
GOP nominee Dr. Monica Wehby and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon.

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The debate in Oregon's U.S. Senate contest has, in its early stages, focused more on government spending and the federal budget than on the health care issues that were expected to dominate.

Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley and a conservative group trying to help his Republican rival, Monica Wehby, have both highlighted a 2011 Senate vote that would have endorsed a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. Merkley opposed it, and says he'd vote against it again. Wehby says she would have supported it had she been in the Senate.

On Wednesday, a political group backed by the conservative Koch brothers, took to the airwaves with its first ad in a blitz that could ultimately cost $3.6 million. The ad attacks Congress for government spending and budget deficits, pointing to Merkley's vote against the balanced budget amendment and in favor of raising the debt ceiling.

"Tell Sen. Merkley: Put Oregon families first. Stop Washington's wasteful spending," a narrator says at the end.

To conservatives, a balanced budget amendment would prevent what they see as runaway government spending. But Democrats say it would require devastating cuts to government services, and they blame much of the current budget deficit on war spending and tax cuts during George W. Bush's presidency.

Merkley's campaign has spent weeks hammering Wehby over the issue, saying she supports a budget plan that would cut benefits for seniors and the middle class. His campaign called that 2011 balanced budget measure he voted against "extreme" and said it would have led to drastic cuts.

Until recently, votes to raise the debt ceiling were routine matters authorizing the U.S. Treasury to borrow money to pay bills already authorized by Congress. Conservative Republicans, empowered by the tea party movement, have recently used debt-ceiling votes as leverage to secure spending cuts. The fight led to last year's government shutdown and prompted fears that the U.S. would default on its debt.

The ad is funded by Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce Inc., a nonprofit organization that facilitates political spending by the Koch brothers and their allies. Charles and David Koch are billionaires who have spent heavily to back conservative and libertarian causes, earning the ire of liberals.

Wednesday's ad will cost six figures, said Freedom Partners spokesman Bill Riggs. He declined to elaborate on the group's future plans.

"While this ad centers on spending," Riggs said in an email, "the overarching message is that Sen. Merkley's policies aren't delivering for Oregon."

Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon from Portland making her first run for political office, does not appear in the Freedom Partners ad.

"She's adopted the same reckless agenda as Washington D.C. Republicans and the billionaire Koch brothers, and this is her reward," Merkley campaign spokeswoman Lindsey O'Brien said in a statement.

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