Iowa ophthalmologist Mariannette Miller-Meeks had come to Washington, D.C., many times since 2000 to talk to members of her state’s Congressional delegation about health care. But during an April 2007 visit, she caught a fever for Capitol Hill.
Miller-Meeks and other doctors met with her new Congressman, Democrat Dave Loebsack, who upset longtime Republican Rep. Jim Leach in the 2006 election. Miller-Meeks, a Republican and a past president of the Iowa Medical Society, disagreed with her new Representative’s views on health care, and a thought occurred to her as she crossed to the Senate side with a group of Iowa doctors.
“I said, You know, I might have to run for Congress.’ And they told me, Well, I’m a Democrat, but I might have to vote for you,'” she recalled in a phone interview last week. “At that time, it was kind of a flippant remark. It wasn’t something I had seriously considered.”
Before long, Miller-Meeks had gotten her family on board, and she ran against Loebsack in the 2008 race. Though she lost that round, in her second attempt this cycle, she is part of a larger group of Republican physicians who are hoping to bring their medical expertise to Capitol Hill.
It began as an even larger group, as a few doctors lost in Republican primaries. South Dakota surgeon and state Rep. Blake Curd, for example, lost to fellow state Rep. Kristi Noem in the GOP primary for the chance to face Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D).
Quite a few Republican doctors are making strong challenges, especially in House races.
But as health care takes a back seat to the economy on the campaign trail, these candidates say they are trying to find ways to build expertise on other issues.
Nan Hayworth, a Republican ophthalmologist running against Democratic Rep. John Hall in New York, said her top legislative priorities are permanently extending the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 as well as repealing the health care law. That’s in line with other Republican doctors who cited fiscal issues as a higher priority than health care reform.
Northern Michigan surgeon Dan Benishek, who was thrust into the national spotlight when Rep. Bart Stupak (D) voted for the health care bill in March, said the financial burden of the stimulus bill was what originally persuaded him to run for Congress. Stupak ultimately decided to retire, and Benishek narrowly won the Republican primary in July.
Candidates such as Benishek, if they win next month, will find an existing network of fellow doctors already on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Charles Boustany, a cardiovascular surgeon who was elected in 2004, said that unlike lawyers or business executives, physicians have gained patients’ trust during some of the worst, most private times in their lives.
“In medicine you deal with the entire spectrum socioeconomically, and you have to develop communication skills to develop that doctor-patient relationship based on trust, and that translates very well into political life,” the Louisiana Republican said.
Boustany said that after he gave the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s radio address on health care in September 2009, some candidates contacted him for advice, including anesthesiologist and Maryland state Sen. Andy Harris (R), who’s running against Rep. Frank Kratovil (D) for the second time; emergency room physician and former Nevada state Sen. Joe Heck (R), who’s running against Rep. Dina Titus (D); and fellow heart surgeon Larry Bucshon (R), who’s running for the seat that Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D) is leaving behind in southern Indiana.
Boustany talked to them about his first race when former patients offered to participate in testimonials for him in TV ads, and he has talked to them about developing expertise in other subjects and playing up their life experiences.
Like other candidates who are doctors, Bucshon touted his education, his habit of listening well and his ability to make good decisions in tough circumstances.
“I’m well-educated,” he said. “Physicians are trained to evaluate data and come to good conclusions about what [solutions] we think are best for our patients.”
Finally, doctors are sometimes able to attract first-time donors and volunteers to their campaigns, using networks of fellow doctors and patients. Benishek said he went first to his colleagues for help. Among his top contributors are the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the American College of Surgeons and the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians.
Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), an orthopedic surgeon who was elected in 2004 after serving in the state Senate, joked that he wished all 435 Members of the House were physicians. Both Price and Boustany have campaigned on behalf of Republican doctors this cycle.
They hope to grow the GOP Doctors Caucus in the House, which had 14 members, including Democrat-turned-Republican Rep. Parker Griffith (Ala.), who lost his primary in June, and Rep. John Boozman, who’s running for the Senate in Arkansas. When he advises candidates, Price said he emphasizes the amount of work involved in running for Congress.
“One is that you can’t do it part time, the political world,” he said. “It requires an absolute commitment that I tell them is greater than anything they’ve done since their internship.”
The Georgian remembered his transition from the medical world, where he said everyone cooperates with the same goal in mind, to the state Senate, where he discovered fellow legislators didn’t always share goals or information.
“Each physician at some point recognizes, as Dorothy said, they’re not in Kansas anymore,” he said. “It’s a completely different world and a completely different method of operating.”