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Doctors, confident in their healing powers, rush for Congress

LAKE OSWEGO, Ore. » First thing Monday, Monica Wehby can be found in the operating room performing brain surgery on a child. But on a recent Saturday morning, she could be found shooting guns, because sometimes that’s what you do when you’re running for office.

"I’m pretty steady-handed, don’t have much of a tremor," Wehby, a 51-year-old Republican Senate candidate and pediatric neurosurgeon, joked to a small group of people in this Portland suburb. She grinned as she described hitting the bull’s-eye despite having no experience with firearms. Her left hand bore a blister from where the Glock had pinched her.

The politicking is all new for Wehby, who wants to unseat Sen. Jeff Merkley, a first-term Democrat. And when people find out that she wants to leave one of the most highly specialized and well-compensated fields in medicine for Washington, they often react with disbelief.

Yet she is hardly alone among her physician peers. A heightened political awareness, along with a healthy self-regard that they could do a better job, is drawing a surprisingly large number to the power of elective office.

A few of the more incredulous questions she has fielded: "Why would you ruin a perfectly good life by running for Senate?" "Are you off your medication?" "I know you’re used to dealing with small brains, but what about no brains?"

With a few exceptions, these physician legislators and candidates — there are three dozen of them — are much alike: deeply conservative, mostly male, and practicing in the specialty fields in which costs and pay have soared in recent years. Wehby fits their profile in all but gender, though Republicans say that having a female candidate is an added advantage in Oregon.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., an ophthalmologist, is a serious contender for his party’s presidential nomination in 2016. Candidates for the Senate this year include an obstetrician in North Carolina, a radiologist in Kansas, a liver disease specialist in Louisiana, and two other doctors in Georgia — all of them Republicans.

At least 26 more physicians are running for the House, some for re-election. In all, 20 people with medical degrees serve in Congress today, 17 in the House and three in the Senate, a number that has doubled over the past decade, according to the American Medical Association. (By contrast, a Johns Hopkins University study found that from 1960 to 2004, only 25 physicians served in either the House or the Senate.)

Why are so many physicians willing to trade their white coats — not to mention the autonomy, respect and high salary — for a job that can be so frustrating that it is now sending one veteran politician after another into retirement?

"Medicine has so changed, and it’s not necessarily the Affordable Care Act," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who had a family medical practice before being elected to the House and later to the Senate.

Coburn said today’s doctors had watched the profession undergo tremendous realignments that are shifting doctors’ responsibilities away from patient care, changes they attribute to the government’s inefficacy. And many of them believe they can reverse the course.

"They’re just frustrated," Coburn said. "They practiced medicine when you could actually spend time with a patient, spend time to listen to them, figure out what’s wrong with them."

The House’s only psychiatrist, Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., offered a more Freudian explanation: the desire for control.

"They want to have their hands right there on the handle so they can pull it one way or another," he said.

As for the reason so few of them are liberal — out of the 17 medical doctors in the House, McDermott is one of only four who are Democrats — he said he believed that politically conservative physicians were more likely to chafe at the direction of changes in health care, with greater oversight by the government and a more regulated role for the private sector. "It’s a fundamental debate about what is in the public good," he said.

Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., an anesthesiologist, said physicians balked at the idea of lawmakers with no medical experience making decisions that could upend the profession. "For them, it’s a theory," he said.

In Oregon, Wehby was recruited to run by Republicans like Coburn as part of an effort to identify candidates who run a lower risk of making the kinds of missteps that cost the party Senate seats in 2012. As a woman and one of the few of her sex to be in pediatric neurosurgery, she can help neutralize the expected critiques from Democrats that Republicans are anti-woman.

"I knew if I didn’t try, I’d always feel like I just stood back when things went from bad to worse," she said.

Many of the doctors in Congress said they recognized that overachieving, confident personality type, and believed that it was a significant factor in their decision to get into politics.

"When you’re a Type A surgeon, as I am, one thing leads to another," said Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., who is also an orthopedic surgeon. "The next thing you know, somebody is asking you to run for office."

As some of these doctors have learned, however, self-assurance does not always translate into good political sense. Take Milton Wolf, the Kansas radiologist who is running in a contentious Republican primary against Sen. Pat Roberts. Wolf had to apologize after old Facebook posts came to light in which he had shown gruesome X-ray images of gunshot wounds and, in some cases, had mocked the dead and injured.

The two Georgia physicians who are running for Senate, Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey, both of whom are Republican House members, have histories of making controversial statements. Broun called evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory "lies straight from the pit of hell."

Gingrey, an obstetrician/gynecologist, defended Todd Akin, the Republican Senate candidate in Missouri who said in 2012 that women’s bodies could prevent pregnancies in cases of "legitimate rape." At a local Chamber of Commerce breakfast last year, Gingrey said "he’s partly right on that."

Then there is Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., who practices family medicine. He was fined by the state for having a sexual relationship with two patients.

These kinds of politicians become easy targets for Democrats. Some Republicans worry that Gingrey and Broun could lose the Georgia seat to a Democrat if one of them becomes the nominee, a notion Broun rejects. "The only way Republicans are going to lose is if conservatives stay home," he said.

That is among the reasons Republicans have high hopes for Wehby. She, too, is aware of the power those two initials at the end of her name can have. Brain surgery jokes aside, she said she thought her profession had prepared her well for the Senate. In the operating room, she said, "you don’t have a lot of time to horse around; time is brain." And just as with politics, she added, "it’s scary."

Jeremy W. Peters, New York Times

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