Image: Rep. Tom Price
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Republican Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, an orthopedic surgeon, says that doctors are "in the cross hairs of Washington all the time."
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updated 12/7/2009 3:39:50 PM ET 2009-12-07T20:39:50

For House Republicans, this could be just what the doctor ordered.

The GOP is capitalizing on the recent health care debate to raise money from and organize Republicans in the medical community — as well as recruit candidates who have an “M.D.” after their name to run in 2010.

Doctors “are always concerned because they’re in the cross hairs of Washington all the time,” said Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), an orthopedic surgeon. “I think they’re more inclined to participate this time given the incredible importance of what’s happening.”

A National Republican Congressional Committee fundraising push geared toward the medical community has raised more than $1.9 million since May. The Physicians Council for Responsible Reform, headed by Price, has signed up more than 6,000 donors and 16,799 “consultants,” or members who have not donated yet, according to statistics provided by the NRCC.

It’s relatively new fundraising and political turf for Republicans. Unlike other well-educated and traditionally profitable professions, such as trial law, physicians comparatively are not as politically involved, according to several GOP members and candidates.

“It is a good fundraising base, and I do think right now with the health care issues in the Congress and the Senate that doctors are more open than normal to contributing to political candidates,” said heart surgeon Larry Bucshon (R), who is challenging Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.). “Doctors, in general, don’t give a lot of money to candidates.”

There are 16 doctors in the House and Senate spanning several medical fields, the vast majority of whom are Republicans. However, more than a dozen doctors have declared their candidacies for Congress already this cycle — and the vast majority of them are Republicans running for the House.

Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.), a heart surgeon for 20 years until he came to Congress, said many doctors find the GOP message appealing because they are small-business owners.

“Doctors are small-business owners and, in addition to taking care of patients, understand human needs at a very basic level,” Boustany said. “And so, they are really very much in touch with the human condition and they also understand small-business needs.”

Boustany said he has advised GOP candidates this cycle, such as state Sen. Andy Harris, an anesthesiologist running for a second time in Maryland’s 1st district against freshman Rep. Frank Kratovil (D); state Sen. Joe Heck, an emergency room doctor who is challenging Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.); and Bucshon.

Boustany said doctors often make great candidates because they have “a range of contacts in our districts that transcend socioeconomic backgrounds.” More importantly, he said doctors are trusted in the community.

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Even better for House Republicans: Many candidates who have been successful in the medical profession are willing to fund part of their own campaign. Ophthalmologist Nan Hayworth (R), who is challenging Rep. John Hall (D-N.Y.), has put $150,000 of her own money into her bid already. Bucshon said he plans to put some of his own wealth into his race, but he is unsure how much that will be.

Other GOP doctors may prove to be competitive candidates, such as South Dakota state Rep. Blake Curd, who is challenging Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D); Scott DesJarlais, who is challenging Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.); and ophthalmologist Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who is seeking a rematch with Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa). Herseth Sandlin and Davis opposed the health care bill that passed the House by a slim five votes in November, while Loebsack voted for the legislation.

Of the four voting Democratic members of Congress who are doctors, only one voted against the health care bill: freshman Rep. Parker Griffith (Ala.), a radiation oncologist before coming to Congress. Rep. Steve Kagen (Wis.), an allergist; Rep. Vic Snyder (Ark.) a family practice doctor; and Rep. Jim McDermott (Wash.), a psychiatrist, voted for the bill on Nov. 7.

Several Democrats with medical degrees are also running for office, although the number is significantly smaller compared with Republicans. Physician Ami Bera (D) is running against Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), and doctors Maureen Hackett and Maureen Reed are running in Democratic primaries for House seats in Minnesota. Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo (D), a physician, is running in the primary for the open-seat Senate in Kentucky. Rand Paul, an eye surgeon and son of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), is seeking the Republican Senate nomination in the Bluegrass State.

Democratic media consultant John Rowley said candidates from the medical community, for the most part, run the gamut this cycle.

“You have doctors who are crazy Republicans, conservative Democrats and progressive Democrats. Some are for and some against health insurance reform,” he said.

And it’s unclear so far, Rowley added, whether having an M.D. will boost a Republican candidacy.

“Will voters think Republican doctors running against health insurance reform are doing so because it’s in their financial self interests?” he asked. “Will doctors running be seen as trustworthy outsiders since the health care debate is so high profile?”

According to a Republican campaign consultant who has worked with several candidates who were formerly doctors, an “M.D.” candidacy can have its positive and negative points. The consultant said that on the plus side, doctors come to the race with a high degree of credibility and people trust them more than lawyers. But sometimes, depending on the type of medicine that they practice, doctors can have varying degree of social skills. Furthermore, it’s imperative for campaigns to check into any medical malpractice lawsuits against the doctor and the potential candidate.

“There are a lot of cross pressures when it comes to medical doctors running in 2010,” Rowley said.

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