Indian-American doctor could be the next Democrat to flip a red district in the Trump era

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Hiral Tipirneni is the latest test of the strength of the “blue wave.”

Dr. Hiral Tipirneni, candidate for Congress from Arizona;s District 8, with her family. (Photo: Facebook)

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Hiral Tipirneni talked to her three kids about the importance of civic engagement, of standing up for the issues you think are important, and of the value of women in politics. In response, Tipirneni’s daughter Mira — who was 19 years old at the time — told her mother to put her money where her mouth was.

“She basically threw down the gauntlet,” Tipirneni recounted in an interview with ThinkProgress.

Now, just shy of a year and a half later, Mira’s mom is locked in a tight race to replace Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) in Arizona’s 8th district, who resigned late last year after it came to light that he had asked a staffer to be his surrogate.

“We blame Mira for all of this,” Tipirneni’s campaign manager Jason Chamberlain said with a laugh in a phone call Monday.

Tipirneni, a doctor who’s worked in emergency rooms and as a cancer research advocate, came with her family to the U.S. from India when she was three. She, like many of the other record-breaking number of women running for office this year, is brand new to politics.

After her daughter encouraged her to run for office, Tipirneni applied to Emerge, a training program for Democratic women interested in running for office, which began the day of the Women’s March last January. She’s already a success story.

In an Emerson College poll released Monday, Tipirneni is leading her Republican rival, former state Sen. Debbie Lesko, by one point, 46 percent to 45. The poll is an outlier — most others have had Lesko up by double digits — but Tipirneni and her campaign manager were both thrilled Monday morning. Chamberlain said their phones were blowing up with people excited about the news.

Tipirneni attributes the lead in that poll to her focus on issues that she says people in the district are most concerned about, particularly health care and Social Security.

“[Health care] is at the forefront of people’s minds,” she said. “It is one of the top issues that comes up when you’re knocking on doors… Premiums are going up, people are falling off their health insurance. What are we doing to do to make sure we stabilize our market?”

The years Tipirneni spent working in the ER have informed her health care plan, she said.

Emergency rooms around the country function as a safety net, Tipirneni said, because people seeking emergency medical care will not be turned away even if they are unable to pay. But, she added, over-relying on the ER means that health care “is more expensive for everyone economically, and it also has a human toll.”

Many ER visits could be avoided if the people in the waiting room had access to more regular points of contact with the health care system, such as primary care doctors. That is part of why, Tipirneni said in her interview with ThinkProgress, she supports Medicare as a public option in the marketplace.

“I think is the most feasible plan, implementable plan is to have a strong public option,” she said. “Medicare has a history of being efficient and effective… If we can put Medicare out as a strong public option that we never really got with the first iteration of the ACA, then private providers are competing with ACA.”

Offering a public option alongside private insurance plans, Tipirneni said, would enhance competition and drive down costs — forcing private insurance companies to streamline and “really produce a quality product.”

“This is a buy-in,” she said. “It’s not a handout; it’s not a tax increase.”

While a single-payer system is gaining traction among a number of high profile Democrats nationally, Tipirneni said Monday it’s not something she supports.

“In theory it sounds great, but I’m pragmatic,” she said. “I’m about implementing solutions I know we can move forward with right now.” (Some proponents of single-payer argue it is possible to move forward with Medicare-for-all plan, and many supporters of a single-payer plan see a plan like Tipirneni’s as a possible bridge to eventually get to a single-payer system.)

Tipirneni’s medical background doesn’t just affect her view on health policy debates. Her time working in an emergency room in Flint, Michigan also helped form her political positions on gun control.

“A night shift did not go by where you didn’t see several gunshot wounds,” Tipirneni said. “It stays with you. The impact is horrific. It goes well beyond that community and that night.”

Tipirneni told ThinkProgress that if she were elected, she would support universal background checks and a bump stock ban.

“A night shift did not go by where you didn’t see several gunshot wounds. It stays with you.”

“That’s sort of a no-brainer,” she said. “I have yet to hear a legitimate argument for keeping [assault-style weapons] in civilian hands.”

Tipirneni’s stance on gun control is much stronger than Rep. Conor Lamb’s (D-PA) — whose recent victory in a special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th district has been widely touted as a possible road map for Democrats running in so-called “Trump country,” considering that Trump won Lamb’s district by 20 points in 2016.

Throughout his run, Lamb bucked the national Democratic Party. He said he will not support House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as speaker, nor will he support any additional gun regulations, saying he believes the U.S. simply needs to enforce the gun laws that are already on the books. Lamb also said he was personally pro-life but that he would not support additional restrictions on abortion like a 20-week ban.

Trump won Tipirneni’s district in Arizona with 57 percent of the vote, while his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton garnered 36 percent. Despite the national implications should Tipirneni win next week, she said Monday that’s she wants to focus on the district.

During her interview with ThinkProgress, Tipirneni mentioned President Trump just once without being asked specifically about him, noting the move he made to stop making Obamacare’s cost-sharing reduction payments — funds that insurers use to help cover low-income people — last year.

“I’m not running some sort of national Democratic campaign here,” Tipirneni said. “It’s about the solutions that are specific to our district. We are on the ground; we are focused on our district.”

That focus, Tipirneni said, is why she won’t yet commit to supporting Pelosi as speaker. If elected, Tipirneni said her litmus test for supporting a House speaker would be someone who supports Medicare and social security, and while Tipirneni said she does believe Pelosi aligns with her on both issues, she will wait to see if anyone else puts their hat in the ring.

Although Tipirneni may prefer to keep the focus on her district, the race in Arizona’s eighth district is a national one nonetheless. It fits into a recent pattern of special elections propelled to national news after members of Congress resigned following scandals. In Pennsylvania, Lamb replaced Republican Rep. Tim Murphy, who was publicly anti-choice but who privately asked his mistress to get an abortion when he believed she was pregnant.

Despite the similarities between the two recent special elections, however, there’s a notable difference in the media frenzy they’ve incited.

“I’m not running some sort of national Democratic campaign here.”

National media descended on Pennsylvania to cover Lamb’s race — just as they did during other recent special elections where Democratic candidates have fought to flip seats, such as Jon Ossoff’s losing race in Georgia to replace former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Sen. Doug Jones’ successful race in Alabama to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

But Tipirneni hasn’t garnered nearly the same excited press, perhaps partly because she’s considered more of an unknown. Asked if Tipirneni could be the next Conor Lamb, one political consultant responded in a text message to ThinkProgress, “I mean, she remains a woman who is a complete political outsider, whilst Lamb is a white guy whose family goes way back in local politics.”

Nonetheless, Tipirneni is confident. She said Monday that she’s met a number of Republicans who have told her she will be the first Democrat for whom they ever cast a vote, and that she believes there’s no reason Arizona can’t be the next big win for Democrats.

“There’s no conventional wisdom that’s applied here,” she said. “This is a very winnable race… If there’s a time for change, it is now.”

(With permission from Think Progress)