Dr. Rob Davidson, an urgent situation physician from western Michigan, had never considered running for Congress. Then came February 2021. The 46-year-old Democrat found himself at a local town-hall meeting going toe-to-toe with Rep. Bill Huizenga, his Republican congressman from the previous six years.
“I told him about my patients,” Davidson recalled. “I see, every shift, some impact of not having adequate healthcare, lacking insurance or perhaps a doctor whatsoever.”
His comments triggered cheers from the audience but didn't seem to register with Huizenga, a vocal Obamacare critic. Which got Davidson thinking.
“I've been very upset – about patients who can't get health care,” he said. However it never inspired him to act. Until this June, that's, when the political novice joined what is now at least eight other Democratic physicians running in races across the country as first-time candidates for Congress.
Democrats hope to gain charge of Congress by harnessing what polls be voters' dissatisfaction with both Capitol Hill and President Donald Trump. The president maintains Republican support but registers low approval ratings among Americans overall, based on news organization FiveThirtyEight. Democrats also see promise in candidates for example Davidson, a left-leaning physician and also require a special advantage: firsthand health system experience.
Polls by Quinnipiac University, The Wall Street Journal and the Kaiser Family Foundation suggest healthcare is among voters' top concerns as midterm elections approach. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent project of the foundation.)
Of the Democratic doctors running for office, basically one are trying to find House seats. In addition to the nine newcomers, there are two incumbents up for re-election. Each candidate is campaigning difficult on the need to reform the health care system.
And they present a stark contrast to Congress' current physician makeup.
Twelve of the 14 doctors now in Congress are Republicans. Three are senators. 1 / 2 of the 14 practice in high-paying specialties for example orthopedic surgery, urology and anesthesiology.
By contrast, these stumping Democratic physicians hail predominantly from specialties such as emergency medicine, pediatrics and internal medicine, though one is a radiologist. They're fighting to represent a mix of rural, urban and suburban districts.
“Electing Democratic doctors would certainly alter the face of drugs in Congress, and perhaps lend more credence for the reason that body to more liberal healthcare policies,” said Dr. Matthew Goldenberg, a psychiatrist at Yale School of Medicine who has researched political behavior and advocacy among doctors.
Physicians once trended Republican. The infusion of female and minority doctors, experts said, is different this. Now, more than 50 percent of party-affiliated doctors are Democrats, and the medical establishment has – following Republican efforts to undo Obamacare – become a staunch defender of the law.
Indeed, many doctor-candidates indicate the GOP's repeal-and-replace efforts as their motivation.
“It's in a boiling point for many of those physicians,” said Jim Duffett, executive director of the left-leaning Doctors for America, which supports universal healthcare.
While healthcare consistently emerges as a top issue, Democrats are more likely to rank n't i. 1. For independents and Republicans, though, it's neck and neck with the economy – plus some political analysts question how effective it will be in flipping conservative districts.
“Democrat voters blame Republicans for that issues with health care right now. Republicans blame Democrats. Independents say, 'A pox on your houses,'” argued Jim McLaughlin, a Republican pollster working on several 2021 races that has previously caused Trump. “They're making a big mistake thinking they can run on [health care].”
That said, doctors can be effective messengers, particularly in their communities.
Research suggests Americans hold their own 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 in the University of New york. “In a district that isn't so one-sided red or blue, there's no question that the white coat confers prestige. It's something physician candidates can speak to with authority.”
Davidson, for example, supports a “Medicare-for-all”-style overhaul, an approach that involves expanding the federal insurance program for seniors and disabled individuals to all Americans. If elected, he explained, he promises to join Democrats' burgeoning support for a single-payer system, where the government runs the only medical health insurance program, guaranteeing universal coverage. He did not have a primary challenge and is running against Huizenga, the Republican incumbent, within the general election for Michigan's 2nd Congressional District.
Or there's Dr. Kyle Horton, an internist running within the North Carolina 7th District. She supports expanding Medicare, by lowering the eligibility age from 65 to 50. She also supports a “public option” health insurance plan sold through the government.
Dr. Hiral Tipirneni, an urgent situation physician in Arizona's 8th Congressional District, asserts all Americans should be able to buy in to Medicare.
Physicians can have a benefit on other controversial topics, by casting them as public health problems, said Howard Rosenthal, a political scientist at New York University.
Davidson's campaign, for instance, posts videos on Facebook by which he talks about topics for example healthcare access and gun violence. One – filmed after a weekend ER shift – has got 41,000 views so far.
Also spurring physicians: concerns about abortion access.
Dr. Cathleen London, a Maine doctor, launched her campaign against four-term incumbent GOP Sen. Susan Collins for the 2021 election. She said she had been considering a run, but the upcoming vote for a justice to replace Anthony Kennedy on the Top court – that could have sweeping implications for reproductive health law – pushed her to declare.
“Doctors are actually frustrated with Washington, frustrated using the insufficient hearing us,” London said.
Many of those Democrats face steep climbs.
Of races featuring newcomer physicians, the Cook Political Report, which analyzes elections, rates only Arizona's 2nd Congressional District as leaning Democratic, and the doctor in that race is just one of seven candidates however. The end result for Washington's 8th District, where Dr. Kim Schrier, a pediatrician, is a candidate, is considered a toss-up and a Democratic pickup target.
Tipirneni is the only non-incumbent doctor to possess a fundraising advantage to date, according to data from Open Secrets, a nonpartisan, nonprofit project tracking campaign-finance records.
Regardless of electoral results, many observers the potential implications are sizable – even if few doctors go to Washington.
“They are planting a flag, and they're going to be raising some important issues – not only healthcare, but health care will probably be in the forefront,” said Duffett, from Doctors for America. “That will help change the political debate and political landscape.”