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GOP Doctors Hope They Have Prescription to Win in November

Iowa ophthalmologist Mariannette Miller-Meeks had come to Washington, D.C., many times since 2000 to talk to members of her state’s Congressional delegation about health care. But during an April 2007 visit, she caught a fever for Capitol Hill.

Miller-Meeks and other doctors met with her new Congressman, Democrat Dave Loebsack, who upset longtime Republican Rep. Jim Leach in the 2006 election. Miller-Meeks, a Republican and a past president of the Iowa Medical Society, disagreed with her new Representative’s views on health care, and a thought occurred to her as she crossed to the Senate side with a group of Iowa doctors.

“I said, ‘You know, I might have to run for Congress.’ And they told me, ‘Well, I’m a Democrat, but I might have to vote for you,’” she recalled in a phone interview last week. “At that time, it was kind of a flippant remark. It wasn’t something I had seriously considered.”

Before long, Miller-Meeks had gotten her family on board, and she ran against Loebsack in the 2008 race. Though she lost that round, in her second attempt this cycle, she is part of a larger group of Republican physicians who are hoping to bring their medical expertise to Capitol Hill.

It began as an even larger group, as a few doctors lost in Republican primaries. South Dakota surgeon and state Rep. Blake Curd, for example, lost to fellow state Rep. Kristi Noem in the GOP primary for the chance to face Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D).

Quite a few Republican doctors are making strong challenges, especially in House races.

But as health care takes a back seat to the economy on the campaign trail, these candidates say they are trying to find ways to build expertise on other issues.

Nan Hayworth, a Republican ophthalmologist running against Democratic Rep. John Hall in New York, said her top legislative priorities are permanently extending the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 as well as repealing the health care law. That’s in line with other Republican doctors who cited fiscal issues as a higher priority than health care reform.

Northern Michigan surgeon Dan Benishek, who was thrust into the national spotlight when Rep. Bart Stupak (D) voted for the health care bill in March, said the financial burden of the stimulus bill was what originally persuaded him to run for Congress. Stupak ultimately decided to retire, and Benishek narrowly won the Republican primary in July.

Candidates such as Benishek, if they win next month, will find an existing network of fellow doctors already on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Charles Boustany, a cardiovascular surgeon who was elected in 2004, said that unlike lawyers or business executives, physicians have gained patients’ trust during some of the worst, most private times in their lives.

“In medicine you deal with the entire spectrum socioeconomically, and you have to develop communication skills to develop that doctor-patient relationship based on trust, and that translates very well into political life,” the Louisiana Republican said.

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