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‘Put a doctor in the House’: Campaigning on pandemic’s front lines

Candidates balance working in health care with vying for votes

(Composite by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)

When Christine Mann comes home from work, she undresses in her garage and immediately puts her clothes in the washer. As the designated employee at a Central Texas medical practice testing patients for the novel coronavirus, Mann is concerned about infecting her husband, who has a compromised immune system due to diabetes.

Roughly 1,400 miles away, in central Virginia, Cameron Webb does the same. Webb, an internist, and his wife, an emergency room doctor, take turns distracting their kids, so whichever parent was working that day can safely undress and avoid exposing them. Webb has volunteered to staff a clinic that will treat patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

[Coronavirus pandemic muddies election and opinion polling]

For both Mann and Webb, the work doesn’t stop when they come home.

Both are also Democrats running for Congress, and they are among the handful of candidates in both parties who are campaigning while working on the front lines of a pandemic.  

Balancing a full-time job with a campaign is a difficult task even in normal times. And these candidates’ day jobs are becoming more complicated and potentially more dangerous. But they say the current crisis has only strengthened their resolve to run for office, and it proves why health care professionals are needed in Congress. 

“My message has always been: Put a doctor in the House,” Mann said. 

Taking off the ‘candidate hat’

Before the crisis hit, some of these candidates likened running for office to their medical residency, which involved 80-hour workweeks.

Pritesh Gandhi, a Democrat running in Texas’ 10th District, said that’s how he and his wife prepared for balancing the campaign with his work at a community health clinic in Austin. Gandhi is competing to take on Republican Rep. Michael McCaul in a race that Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates Likely Republican.

“For a year, I had the candidate hat on,” Gandhi said in a phone interview. “But these are different times.” 

Gandhi’s been spending day and night at the clinic, where he is the assistant chief medical officer and the director of adult medicine. He’s continuing to see patients, and he’s part of a team crafting the clinic’s response to the pandemic. That has involved expanding tele-health capabilities to allow patients to communicate virtually with doctors, and adjusting to a limited supply of personal protective equipment, such as masks and gowns, for health care workers. 

[The national stockpile is out of supplies to give to the states]

Some candidates who are former health care workers are ready to go back to work.

Iowa state Sen. Marianette Miller-Meeks, a Republican running for the 2nd District, stopped practicing as an ophthalmologist in January as she launched her fourth run for Congress. She is competing for the open seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack. Inside Elections rates the race Tilt Democratic.

In recent days, Miller-Meeks has phoned the CEOs of local hospitals and offered to volunteer. A former director of the Iowa Department of Public Health and a retired Army reservist, she said she could also be called back into medical service through the military. 

“I don’t have any negative feelings about it at all,” Miller-Meeks said of the possibility of going back to work. She said saving lives and relieving overwhelmed medical staff would take precedence. 

“That comes first,” Miller-Meeks said. “The campaign comes second.”

Other candidates expressed the same sense of duty as they face the crisis.

“Health care providers across the country are doing this because of their commitment to service and to our communities,” said Webb, who faces a competitive primary in Virginia’s 5th District. 

The risk is not one he takes lightly. Webb and his wife have a plan for who will take their kids if they get sick. But he was also looking forward to playing his part. 

“My words were, ‘Put me in, Coach,’” he said. “I have enough experience in medicine to know what I can do for folks in the midst of a crisis is an important role.” 

Mann, a family physician running in Texas’ 31st District, volunteered to test patients for the virus. At 55, she is less vulnerable to the disease than her older colleagues. When a patient comes in with symptoms, she dons personal protective equipment and heads to the practice’s parking lot. She collects samples to be sent to a lab, and then isolates herself in her office until the next patients arrive. 

Like her health care colleagues across the country, Mann is witnessing the strain of limited supplies. Last week, she administered an estimated 25 tests, one of which was positive. This week, the lab is only providing five tests. Testing is critical to combating the spread, Mann said.

“Mentally, morally, ethically, I’m feeling very challenged right now that I’m not going to be able to provide the services that I think are necessary,” she said. 

The campaign goes on

All the while, these candidates are also campaigning, engaging voters, supporters and donors over the phone and online. 

The change came abruptly in the second week of March. Miller-Meeks still attended the state Republican county conventions on March 14, though she said she tried to avoid handshakes.

Miller-Meeks and other candidates with health care backgrounds have since leaned into their experience on the campaign trail. 

Gandhi hosts weekly town halls on his campaign’s Facebook page, holding up hand-drawn charts and fielding questions from voters.

“Folks are hungry for information that is rooted in science, and rooted in expertise, and rooted in experience,” he said. 

Other candidates reported a heightened interest in their online forums and their thoughts on the crisis. One said it had raised his profile in a crowded primary.

Rich McCormick, an emergency room doctor in the Atlanta suburbs, said he has struggled to make time for fundraising and faced early criticism for not devoting enough time for his campaign in the 7th District, a race Inside Elections rates a Toss-up.

McCormick is one of seven Republicans vying to replace retiring GOP Rep. Rob Woodall. As the virus advanced this spring, McCormick’s profile has risen, in part because some of his thoughts about the virus dovetail with views expressed by conservative commentators and President Donald Trump.

In late February, Trump retweeted a video McCormick had posted in which he defended the president’s response to the virus and criticized Democrats for trying to take advantage of the crisis. He has also done interviews with conservative outlets such as Fox News and Newsmax.

“This has definitely catapulted us to front-runner status,” he said, arguing that his experience gives him credibility other candidates lack. “We can address things that other people aren’t able to talk to. You can have a town hall and talk about coronavirus, but if you sell golf clubs, it doesn’t have the same effect.”

Crisis politics

Even before the pandemic, health care was going to be a top campaign issue in 2020. Now candidates in both parties argue that the crisis has emphasized the importance of having health care professionals in office.  

But there is still a partisan divide, especially over how Trump has handled the response. Mann said a lack of coordinated information from top officials sent independent practices like hers scrambling to respond. 

Webb agreed.

“People are seeing how dangerous a lack of expertise is as they watch the president fumble through this epidemic,” he said.

Republicans sided with the president. Miller-Meeks and McCormick supported Trump’s actions, particularly his decision to restrict some travelers coming from China as the virus spread there. 

Trump “did the right thing, at the right time,” McCormick said.

[The one way to tell Trump didn’t take coronavirus seriously]

But divisions among Democrats over health care that dominated the presidential race earlier this year are also playing out with down-ballot contenders. 

Lawyer Mike Siegel, who faces Gandhi in a July 14 primary runoff, said the crisis underscores the need for a single-payer health care system known as “Medicare for All.” Gandhi supports offering a public insurance plan as an option, rather than having the government supplant private insurance. So does Webb, who is vying to take on GOP Rep. Denver Riggleman in a race Inside Elections rates Solid Republican.

Mann has a similar approach to Siegel, arguing that Medicare for All is the best option. 

“We haven’t even started to see the worst of the worst here in the United States,” Mann said. “And the people who are going to suffer the most are the people who are left behind by our current health care system.”

Mann doesn’t believe her position is too far to the left to win over voters in the 31st District, which includes the Austin suburbs. Inside Elections rates the race Likely Republican. But to take on GOP Rep. John Carter, she first has to win a runoff against computer engineer Donna Imam.

For Mann, the pandemic is not off-limits on the campaign trail. 

“Everything about this pandemic has been dictated by politics,” she said. “If we don’t address the political pieces that have led us to where we are today, we are missing a huge part of what we need to do to make sure that we never see this again.”

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