Ronny Jackson, Donald Trump’s former physician, had been struggling for months to break through in a crowded field of Republicans vying for a congressional seat in Texas — despite his ties to the president.
But that’s all changed since the coronavirus outbreak:Jackson has become a regular presence on conservative radio and cable TV, tapping his medical background and knowledge of the White House to discuss the pandemic. During a teletown hall this month, he boasted to voters about his recent trip to Washington, where he met with Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and other officials managing the nation’s response.
“I know this team well. I’ve worked with them for a long time at the White House, for three years,” Jackson told the virtual crowd of 5,000. “I worked in the West Wing every day, side by side, and I was involved with a lot of the planning for potential pandemic issues.”
Jackson is one of a batch of congressional candidates in both parties who are trying to parlay their backgrounds in medicine or public health into campaign assets that propel them into Congress. One of them, public health expert Kate Schroder, trounced her opponent in a Democratic primary Tuesday after touting her background in the campaign. She is competing for a Cincinnati-area House race that Democrats have identified as a top takeover target.
If enough of the candidates are elected in November, they could infuse Congress with the type of expertise that scientists and public health advocates say is required to help Congress respond to the current crisis, or one the country might face in the future.
“I don’t have to explain to voters anymore what public health is or why it matters,” Schroder said in an interview on Wednesday. “So, that’s a change. That wasn’t the way it was before and something that I’ve been championing my whole life is suddenly part of the common conversation.”
Schroder, who on Tuesday captured the Democratic nomination to face Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), has made health care a key theme of her campaign messaging. She currently serves on the Cincinnati Board of Health and was an executive at the Clinton Health Access Initiative, where she worked to combat child illness and disease in developing countries.
Two doctors are running for the Senate in red states where Democrats are optimistic they can be competitive and expand their path back to a Senate majority: Alaska and Kansas. In the House, there are more than 20 physicians, nurses and surgeons running for open or battleground seats, according to a POLITICO analysis.
The list includes Hiral Tipirneni, an emergency room physician in Arizona; Cameron Webb, a doctor at the University of Virginia; Mariannette Miller-Meeks, an ophthalmologist in Iowa; William Figlesthaler, a urologist in Florida; Pritesh Gandhi, a physician in Texas; and Knute Buehler, an orthopedic surgeon in Oregon.
These candidates are hosting well-attended virtual town halls, writing op-eds and weaving medical advice into their campaign pitches. Some are still practicing physicians, working to help their local communities craft a response to the virus. Rep. Roger Marshall, one of several Republicans in a competitive Senate primary in Kansas, started treating Covid-19 patients at a clinic last week.
Al Gross, an orthopedic surgeon with a masters in public health running for Senate in Alaska, said engagement in his campaign has increased as people have sought information about the coronavirus outbreak, including 20,000 people who joined a teletown hall last month.
Gross, who is running as an independent with backing from the state and national Democratic Party, said in an interview the outbreak underscored a need in Washington for “somebody who understands science and can interpret data.”
“It’s something that we’re lacking in the Senate and in Congress right now,” he said. “We’re learning from this that it’s critical that we have people in leadership positions that have a strong science background.”
There are currently roughly two dozen doctors and dentists in Congress,including Democratic Reps. Raul Ruiz and Ami Bera, both from California, and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who were among the first to advocate for stronger measures to combat the virus. The House freshman class also includes a pediatrician, a registered nurse, and a former secretary of Health and Human Services.
Some Democratic candidates are specifically criticizing the federal government’s response and arguing they have ideas to improve it.
Democratic state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a physician running for the open Senate seat in Kansas, hosted a teletown hall last month in which a listener said she should emphasize her medical background because “in times like this we need to know that you have that training and experience.” She also joined a Facebook Live with 314 Action, a Democratic group that works to elect candidates with science backgrounds. Last month, alongside former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is also running for Senate, and two physicians, Bollier told viewers the government’s failures stemmed from leaders in Washington reacting rather than being proactive.
314 Action has endorsed over a dozen Democratic candidates running for the House and Senate, including Bollier. Officials at the group note that one of the earliest scientists to sound the alarm on the virus was Eric Feigl-Ding, a candidate they supported in a 2018 House primary in central Pennsylvania that he lost.
“It really makes the case for why we need folks with health and science backgrounds in elected office,” said Shaughnessy Naughton, the president of 314 Action and herself a former congressional candidate in Pennsylvania. “Not just as advisers that can be ignored, but as actual policymakers.”
The outbreak reached an apex in the middle of primary season, and several of the doctors and health professionals have steep competition for the nomination. But these races could offer an early test of whether or not voters place an increased premium on their experience.
In a battleground House district in Texas, Gandhi, a physician with a masters in public health, has had to balance his primary runoff campaign with his work at an Austin-based community health clinic, where he is leading the coronavirus response.
He’s had little time to fundraise for the July runoff against 2018 Democratic nominee Mike Siegel, but he said the virtual Covid-19 town halls that he holds are among the most attended campaign events he has held since launching his run last year.
Many of the questions, he said, are about policies, ranging from paid family leave to the disparity in death rates by race.
“If ever there was time for frontline clinicians to speak up, this would be it,” Gandhi said in a phone interview this month. “We have to lean in now on the experiences that we’ve had, what we’re seeing and what we can do differently moving forward.”
Over in the Texas Panhandle, Jackson, Trump’s former White House physician,predicted his medical experience would differentiate him from his runoff opponent and that his outreach on the outbreak had helped him raise his profile in the district.
“The exposure that I’ve had on the national level and some of the local radio and TV that I’ve done has definitely helped me in that regard and allowed the voters to get to know me a little bit,” Jackson told POLITICO.
Read at Politico.