Rob Davidson, an emergency physician from western Michigan, had never considered running for Congress. Then came the town hall meeting in early 2017 that Davidson decided to attend. The 46-year-old Democrat found himself going one-on-one with Rep. Bill Huizenga, his Republican congressman for six years.
“I told him about my patients,” Davidson recalled. “I see, every shift, some impact of not having adequate health care, not having dental insurance or a doctor at all.”
His comments triggered cheers from the audience but didn’t seem to register with Huizenga, a vocal critic of the Affordable Care Act. And that got Davidson thinking.
“I’ve always been very upset … about patients who can’t get health care,” he said. Yet it never inspired him to act. Until last summer, that is, when the political novice joined what is now at least eight other Democratic physicians running as first-time candidates in congressional races across the country.
Their party hopes to gain control of the House and Senate by harnessing what polls show to be voters’ dissatisfaction with Capitol Hill and President Donald Trump. The president maintains strong support among Republicans but registers low approval ratings among Americans overall, according to most recent polls. Polling also suggests that health care is among voters’ top concerns as midterm elections approach.
Davidson remains a long shot in November; analysts list Michigan’s 2nd Congressional District as solidly Republican. Nonetheless, Democrats see promise in such candidates given their very different experience.
Of the 11 Democratic doctors running for office, all but one are seeking House seats. All but two are newcomers. Like many other Democrats, they are campaigning hard on the need to overhaul the nation’s health-care system.
If they win, they would dramatically alter the current physician makeup in Congress. At the moment, 12 of the 14 doctors there are Republicans. Three are senators, including Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy, a gastroenterologist who led one of the GOP’s efforts to repeal the ACA. Half of his medical colleagues come from such high-paying fields as orthopedic surgery, urology and anesthesiology.
By contrast, these stumping Democrats hail predominantly from specialties such as emergency medicine, pediatrics and internal medicine. They’re fighting to represent a mix of rural, urban and suburban districts.
“Electing Democratic doctors would certainly change the face of medicine in Congress, and perhaps lend more credence in that body to more liberal health-care policies,” said Matthew Goldenberg, a psychiatrist at Yale School of Medicine who has researched political behavior and advocacy among doctors.
As a profession, physicians once tended to be Republican. The infusion of female and minority doctors has changed this, say experts who study the medical profession. More than 50 percent of party-affiliated doctors are now Democrats, according to research published by the National Academy of Sciences, and the medical establishment has emerged as a staunch ACA defender.
Indeed, many doctor candidates point to the GOP’s repeal-and-replace efforts as their motivation.
“It’s at a boiling point for many of these physicians,” said Jim Duffett, executive director of the left-leaning Doctors for America, which supports universal health care.
While health care consistently emerges as a top issue for voters, Democrats are more likely to rank it No. 1. For independents and Republicans, though, it’s more on par with the economy – and some political analysts question how effective it will be in flipping conservative districts.
Anyone running on health care is “making a big mistake,” said Jim McLaughlin, a Republican pollster involved in several races who also worked on Trump’s presidential campaign. “Democrat voters blame Republicans for the problems with health care right now. Republicans blame Democrats. Independents say, ‘A pox on both your houses.’ ”
That said, doctors can be effective messengers, especially in their communities. Research suggests Americans hold their physicians in high regard.
“Voters listen carefully to what physicians have to say about health policy,” said Jonathan Oberlander, a professor of social medicine and health policy at the University of North Carolina. “In a district that’s not so one-sided red or blue, there’s no question that the white coat confers prestige.”
Davidson, for instance, supports a kind of Medicare-for-all overhaul, an approach that would involve expanding the federal health-insurance program for seniors and disabled people to all Americans. If elected, he said he intends to join his party’s burgeoning support for a single-payer system in which the government would run the sole health insurance program.
Hiral Tipirneni, an emergency physician who has no opposition in Tuesday’s primary in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, also believes that all Americans should be able to buy in to Medicare. And North Carolina’s 7th Congressional District contest features internist Kyle Horton, who supports expanding Medicare by lowering the eligibility age from 65 to 50. She also wants a “public option” health insurance plan sold by the government.
Physicians can have an advantage on some controversial topics by casting them as public health issues, said Howard Rosenthal, a political scientist at New York University. Davidson’s campaign, for instance, posts videos on Facebook in which he talks about topics such as gun violence. One, filmed after an overnight shift in his hospital’s emergency room, has been viewed 41,000 times.
Still, most of these Democrats face steep climbs.
Of races featuring newcomers who are physicians, the Cook Political Report, which analyzes elections, rates only Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District as leaning Democratic, and internist Matt Heinz is just one of seven candidates in this week’s primary. Washington’s 8th Congressional District, where pediatrician Kim Schrier is running, is considered a toss-up.
Regardless of the results in November, some observers say the potential implications are sizable.
These candidates “are planting a flag, and they’re going to be raising some important issues – not just health care, but health care is going to be front and center,” said Duffett, of Doctors for America. “That will help change the political debate and political landscape.”
This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente. (The Washington Post News Service & Syndicate)