Published 7/1/2011
Madeleine Lovette

Preparing the next generation of physician political candidates

AAOS sponsors workshop for physicians interested in running for political office

The 2010 elections sent 20 physicians to Congress, and many more doctors were elected to state and local office. The increased emphasis and ongoing discussions on health insurance reform, the physician payment system, a potential Medicare overhaul, and other healthcare challenges are attracting more physicians—including orthopaedic surgeons—to political life.

Individuals who understand the importance of orthopaedic practice and who care about the future of the specialty are needed in the halls of state capitol buildings and in Congress. In May, in anticipation of the 2012 election, the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), in partnership with six other specialty societies, sponsored a Physician Specialty Candidate Workshop in Washington, D.C. The goal was to help prepare the next cycle of motivated physicians for public service.

Several political experts—including nationally renowned political consultant Eva Campbell and award-winning political advertising consultant J.J. Balaban—provided campaign tips and strategies. Among the topics addressed were how to develop a campaign plan, messaging and fundraising strategies, the importance of polling, and the pros and cons of various communication outlets. Five AAOS members attended the workshop, which was cohosted by Stuart L. Weinstein, MD, chair of the Orthopaedic Political Action Committee (PAC).

The pros of being a physician candidate
Physicians already possess attributes that are attractive to voters, Ms. Campbell said. Physicians are well educated, credible, care for people in need, and often own their own businesses. In addition, they often have a dependable network of patients, colleagues, and others who can help build an initial grassroots campaign and acquire donations.

“According to Ms. Campbell, a successful political candidate is viewed by the public as someone who will never give up and never stop fighting for the people,” said Dr. Weinstein. “Physicians make ideal candidates because they fight for their patients every day.”

Although a physician candidate may be challenged by time limitations and being typecast on issues, these obstacles may be overcome; two successful examples of physician candidates who are now influencing decisions in Congress are Rep. Joe Heck, DO (R-Nev.), and Rep. Bill Cassidy, MD (R-La.).

Studies in succeeding
Before running for public office, Rep. Heck was a practicing emergency department physician at University Medical Center in Las Vegas. In his state Senate and U.S. House races, Rep. Heck leveraged his strengths as a caregiver and small business owner to connect to voters and establish his credibility as someone who could balance a budget and do what’s best for his constituents.

In Congress, Rep. Heck has supported key healthcare bills, including H.R. 4, which repealed the 1099 tax reporting provision and was recently signed into law. He has also supported H.R. 436, the Protect Medical Innovation Act of 2011, and H.R. 452, the Medicare Decisions Accountability Act of 2011.

Rep. Cassidy was an associate professor of medicine at Louisiana State University before he entered politics. As cofounder of the Greater Baton Rouge Community Clinic, a clinic providing free health care to the working uninsured, he won support as an advocate for affordable health care. Like Rep. Heck, Rep. Cassidy served in the state Senate before his election to Congress and used his position as a physician and educator to establish his credibility.

Rep. Cassidy is now a member of the powerful House Energy and Commerce committee and serves on three subcommittees: Health; Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade; and Environment and the Economy.

“Reps. Cassidy and Heck are great examples of physicians who went from practicing medicine to being a voice for doctors and patients all over the country,” said Dr. Weinstein. “It is important that we adequately prepare the men and women who wish to follow in their footsteps to be formidable candidates in 2012.”

Strategies and tactics
Being qualified is only part of what makes a candidate successful. According to Ms. Campbell, a candidate must also have a clear campaign plan, with a formula on how to approach a district and an outline of where and how time and funds are going to be spent.

Pollster Jim McLaughlin illustrated how strategic polling—questioning a diverse sample of registered voters on general and specific topics—can be used to achieve an effective campaign outline. “Strategic polling can pinpoint a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses and even predict if the candidate can win. It can also identify the issues that are important to the candidate’s constituents, pinpoint where the candidate’s campaign should target its resources, and help define the candidate’s message,” he said.

A well-constructed message is the most critical component of a political candidate’s campaign. “Voters are bombarded by 3,000 exposures a day and breaking through can be a huge challenge,” said presenter Richard Schlackman, a direct mail strategist and winner of the Association of Political Consultants’ Lifetime Achievement award. He demonstrated how a direct mail program can serve as an excellent tool to relay a message, but also acknowledged the need to “layer” or use different media, such as television ads along with direct mail pieces, to attract voters’ attention and gain their support.

To combat voter overstimulation, Ms. Campbell recommended a “Command and Focus” strategy that involves constructing a simple, direct, easy-to-understand message and delivering it consistently until the target audience acts on the message. Sending the right message to the right voters at the right time through the right media is the key to winning, she said.

Building a war chest
In today’s political climate, candidates—especially first-time candidates—must be willing to put in the time and effort necessary to raise a significant sum of money. Unless candidates are capable of investing a sizeable amount of personal funds into their races, they must rely on fundraising to pay for staff, polling, events, advertising, and other critical forms of constituent communication.

“No message is effective unless it is repeated,” said Mr. Schlackman. “This repetition cannot occur unless a candidate has the necessary funds to send written and electronic mail, build and maintain a website, and take advantage of all available advertising outlets.”

AAOS member Knute C. Buehler, MD, found the workshop to be a valuable experience. “It was a great introduction to the nuts and bolts of a political campaign and provided thoughtful insights to consider for my practice and my personal life. As health care in the United States becomes more structurally determined by federal policy, a deeper understanding is crucial for the practice of medicine and maintaining high quality orthopaedic care for our patients. It is very important that orthopaedic surgeons become more directly involved in determining policy, and this requires winning elections.”

AAOS members who are interested in running for public office and would like more information, or wish to attend a future candidate workshop, should contact Cheka Gage in the office of AAOS Government Relations by e-mail at gage@aaos.org

Madeleine Lovette is the communications specialist in the AAOS office of government relations. She can be reached at lovette@aaos.org