This was the right year for Natalia Linos, an epidemiologist with global health experience, to run for Congress.
She’s among the more than 20 candidates with a medical field background currently vying for House seats — and whose careers are potentially more of a campaign asset than ever before.
Linos, who declared for Massachusetts’ 4th District right before the filing deadline, said she’d prefer that her experience was less of a selling point now. But given the latest surge in coronavirus cases, her run feels more urgent heading into the Sept. 1 Democratic primary than it did in April.
Linos highlighted her career in a TV ad, and it could help separate her in a nine-candidate field for the open seat.
“The hope was that we would have been in a much better position and therefore my candidacy might have been less relevant,” she said.
The global pandemic hasn’t abated in the United States, and therefore candidates with science backgrounds are seeing more enthusiasm from voters, said Shaughnessy Naughton, the founder and president of 314 Action, a group that aims to elect more scientists to Congress.
“The pandemic has really brought into stark relief the acute danger of ignoring science and expertise when Americans can see it in real time,” Naughton said. “Medical professionals have a unique authority to speak to it, but we are seeing support across all of our campaigns.”
Doctors in Congress
The 117th Congress could see an increase in physicians, nurses and other medical professionals. The House currently has 13 physicians, two nurses, and one physician assistant, according to the Congressional Research Service. Four doctors — two Democrats, one Republican and one independent — are running for the Senate, which currently has three physicians.
About half of those running are Democrats, who have used their experiences in the medical field to call for more testing, personal protective equipment for doctors, and health-care policies such as Medicare for All.
Hisam Goueli founded the physician-led political action committee Doctors in Politics during the pandemic to urge more doctors to run for office. He said 2020 was the first time he saw more doctors want to become increasingly active in politics beyond advocacy work.
“The pandemic has illustrated our need to organize for political power in a meaningful way,” Goueli said. “Doctors are really frustrated in this critical moment.”
The group has backed Hiral Tipirneni (D), a former emergency room physician challenging Rep. David Schweikert (R) in Arizona’s 6th District. Tipirneni ran and lost two years ago in a different district but said voters are more drawn to her experience during the pandemic.
Tipirneni said in an interview that voters, unhappy with the current leadership amid the crisis, “understand that having more physicians and scientists at the table would be a very good thing, not just for the time of a pandemic but for policy in general.”
‘Pandemic of our Lifetime’
Several Republicans with medical experience are also running for office and have been vocal supporters of President Donald Trump’s call to repeal the Affordable Care Act and opponents of Medicare for All.
Trump’s former White House physician Ronny Jackson is the GOP nominee in Texas’ 13th District, and he’s all but certain to win the heavily Republican seat in November. Jackson and Trump have endorsed emergency room physician Rich McCormick in Georgia’s 7th District, an open GOP-held seat the Cook Political Report rates as a Toss-up.
Leadership on “both sides” need to focus more on patient-centered solutions, which is why Congress needs more medical professionals, McCormick said in an interview. He added that while he doesn’t support Medicare for All or the Affordable Care Act, McCormick wants to work with a bipartisan doctors coalition to focus on “people, not politics.”
Celeste Williams (D), a nurse running to unseat Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), said the pandemic has emphasized the need for science-based approaches to policy.
“You have to follow the science, and that’s what should lead your policy,” Williams said. “That also gives people a little more comfort as well, relying on medical experts who are not partisan.”
Linos said ultimately the federal government’s “lack” of a response to Covid-19 continues to make her and others’ candidacies more attractive to voters.
“There’s never going to be a time where epidemiology is as relevant to our country as it is now,” she said. “I mean, hopefully. Fingers crossed this is the pandemic of our lifetime.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Samantha Handler in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org