Updated Oct 23, 2022 - Health

Doctors seek a bigger voice in races as midterms approach

Illustration of a statue of Justice wearing a doctor's coat and a stethoscope

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Doctors who've never been involved in politics before are mobilizing to influence the outcome of the midterms, joining battles over abortion and gun violence while confronting health misinformation and anti-science sentiment.

Why it matters: The same public distrust and politicization of science that's fueling physician burnout is drawing some doctors to grassroots political movements. They're being featured in political ads, joining candidates on the stump and, in some cases, even running for office.

  • "After the Dobbs decision everybody had a just a 'We can't take this anymore after everything we had been through with the pandemic' moment," said Belinda Birnbaum, a rheumatologist in Pennsylvania. "Every conversation we had with every patient was about the pandemic and combating all of the misinformation out there and then, with the overturning of Roe, we knew doctors were going to be even more stressed than we had been, and we all had a 'that's it' moment."

What's happening: Mostly Democratic doctors like Birnbaum are factoring in the battleground Senate race in Pennsylvania, canvassing precincts and hosting media roundtables where they denounce Republican hopeful Mehmet Oz for promoting questionable health products.

  • "I think many of us may have been involved individually as people who cared about elections and policies," said Benjamin Abella, an emergency room doctor in Philadelphia. "This election cycle galvanized many in health care to step up our game, get messages out that help our patients. This is very different, physicians speaking up out of their office, this is so different than anything we've ever seen before."
  • In Texas, the grassroots Physician Women for Democratic Principles protested at the National Rifle Association convention in Houston after the Uvalde school massacre and organized fundraisers for Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Beto O'Rourke. The group advocates for gun control and abortion access.
  • The Committee to Protect Health Care, a progressive advocacy group for physicians, has seen membership jump from 500 when it first started in 2019 to 10,000 today, many of which joined in the last two years. It encourages physicians to speak out in media and other forums against COVID or abortion misinformation.

Be smart: Physician-led groups on the political right gained visibility during the pandemic, criticizing public health agencies and the drug industry and pushing back against lockdowns and other public health messaging, per STAT.

  • A cadre of Republican physician-candidates launched bids for Congress after the enactment and troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act, pitching their professional expertise while backing a more limited role for government in the health system.

Driving the news: Democratic doctors are running for four potentially competitive House seats this election cycle, all messaging around the idea of how physicians are urgently needed in Congress to meet this political moment.

  • "I think it's essential that doctors run," Kermit Jones, who emerged from a nonpartisan primary for California's 3rd congressional district seat, told Axios. The internist and Navy veteran said many politicians have no medical knowledge but are making critical decisions about abortion access. Cook Political Report rates the race as "Likely Republican," though Jones got attention for his strong performance in the primary.
  • Another California doctor, pulmonologist Asif Mahmood, similarly emerged from a top-two primary to challenge incumbent Young Kim in the state's 40th congressional district. The race is being closely watched, though a July Republican-sponsored poll had Kim as the winner by 16%.
  • Annie Andrews, a pediatrician and gun control advocate, is challenging incumbent Nancy Mace in South Carolina's 1st congressional district, which is considered to be one of the only competitive districts in the state.
  • In what is looking to be a very close race, Yadira Caraveo, a pediatrician and state legislator, is running against Barbara Kirkmeyer for Colorado's new 8th congressional district. An internal poll conducted by Caraveo's campaign this summer has the race as leaning towards Kirkmeyer by two points.

There are at least four Republican doctors running for Congress this cycle, including Oz.

  • The Oz campaign connected Axios to doctors who support the Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate.
  • Jon Tucker, a retired orthopedic surgeon in Pittsburgh, said he respects Oz’s medical background but said his support is more about being able to advance Republican economic priorities in Congress.
  • Rich McCormick, a Republican emergency room doctor who won a primary runoff for Georgia's 6th congressional seat, said he's motivated by dissatisfaction with the Biden administration and its pandemic response.
  • "Biden took all of the motivations out of the health care industry to make their own decisions," McCormick, who mounted an unsuccessful congressional bid in 2020, told Axios. "He censored physicians and said the government is the answer to all of our decisions in medicine ... I have a problem with that."

Go deeper: The trend could continue in future campaign cycles, driven in part by political action groups that have sprung up to support more physicians in office.

  • "This year we've endorsed a record number of physicians running for public office, everything from county commissioner through to the federal level," said Shaughnessy Naughton, president of 314 Action, a progressive PAC that started endorsing candidates in 2018. "One of the recurring themes I hear from them, is there’s only so much I can do from inside the exam room."
  • 314 Action and another PAC called Doctors in Politics launched a partnership in September to get more doctors civically engaged at the local level, by meeting with elected officials, giving public testimony and writing op-eds. The groups hope the engagement will result in more doctors wanting to run for office.
  • A new PAC, Healthcare for Action, launched this summer, aims to get health care workers to run for Congress. It's endorsed the four Democratic doctor candidates and is raising money for each.

Of note: In Congress, Republican doctors outnumber their Democratic counterparts.

  • In the Senate, there are four Republican doctors: Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wy.). Paul, who's seeking a third term in November, could be in line to chair the Senate health committee if Republicans flip control of the chamber.
  • In the House there are 10 Republican doctors and three Democrats.

Our thought bubble: Physician-lawmakers often wind up on health committees and can play important roles educating their colleagues and influencing key pieces of legislation.

  • But their effectiveness could be tested in a divided government, by polarizing debates over abortion access and the origins of COVID-19.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Oct. 17, 2022

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