Cover Story

Rookie season

"Rookie season" Continued...

Issue: "Broken beyond repair?," Sept. 25, 2010

In Michigan's expansive 1st District, which includes all of the Upper Peninsula, it might be fitting that a physician is the GOP candidate for the seat of Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak, who is retiring after forging a deal that ensured passage of the healthcare reform bill. Dr. Dan Benishek, 58, has spent the last couple of decades slicing guts open as a general surgeon. He was easing into retirement, doing a few endoscopies a week at the veterans hospital, but in January he decided to set that aside for politics.

A few months later Stupak, who as leader of a bloc of pro-life Democrats was one of the chief obstacles to the passage of healthcare reform, agreed to support the bill in return for what many consider a toothless executive order banning tax funds for abortions. "Everybody hated that," Benishek said about Stupak's deal. "He stood up as a leader of the pro-life movement, then bailed on his principles." When Stupak cast his vote for the healthcare bill in March, Benishek was his only Republican challenger, and he was largely unknown. Donations poured in for the Republican from all over the country and in April Stupak announced his retirement, giving Republicans a chance to take the seat.

Benishek has lost 28 pounds in the stress of entering politics, weathering a six-way primary. When he began campaigning, he said, "You don't know what to do." His stepson handles public relations, and his wife worked the phones for a while. He is brushing up on issues by reading economist Milton Friedman. He tells me he has just returned from media training with the National Republican Congressional Committee in Washington, to help him "not say anything stupid" to reporters.

"People are deciding for the first time in their lives to get politically active," he said. "I'm running for the same reason that they're active. I wasn't all that political as a physician. You work all the time."

Dr. Scott DesJarlais runs a general practice in Jasper, Tenn., serving several thousand patients. In the exam room, his patients used to talk about football, gardening, and hunting, he said. Now they talk about politics. He heard their fears and decided to run for office, challenging Democratic Rep. Lincoln Davis. "The direction of our country . . . didn't set well with me," DesJarlais told me. His patients jokingly told him they wouldn't vote for him because they didn't want to lose their doctor.

Dr. Larry Bucshon, a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon running in Indiana's 8th District, had noticed problems in the healthcare industry for years but doesn't think the new law would solve them. "As a doctor, my main concern is access to quality healthcare for people-but also a vibrant, viable system that attracts young people to go into medicine," he said. Recruiting doctors to his area, he said, is already difficult, and he and other physician candidates think the new law could discourage people from going into medicine. Costs for his medical group of a dozen physicians, Ohio Valley Heart Care, have been rising regularly-and he thinks costs will continue to rise under the current law without reforms like reducing the level of litigation in the medical industry. Bucshon's group sold themselves to a hospital three years ago. "We're like every other small business-we're being pinched," he said.

But will political greenhorns have sensible, doable ideas for governing? Will they really improve the culture of Washington, or will it change them? Before Fincher signed up to run for Congress, he didn't own a BlackBerry, but he does now-the phone that every Washingtonian obsessively checks morning to night. If any of these candidates win, they'll likely hire staff that already work on the Hill-which is practical, to bring in those with congressional experience-but raises the question of whether they can revolutionize politics as they would like. "I'm not naïve to that," said Bucshon. "It may take decades to try to change the culture." The prospect of leaving their professions and governing seems a bit daunting, too. Benishek said his wife Judy was initially worried he would lose. But now she's worried he will win.

The Candidates

Running for House seats

Businessmen with no political background: 30

  • Tom Ganley Ohio-13
  • Scott Rigell Va.-02
  • Steve Fincher Tenn.-08
  • Beth Ann Rankin Ark.-04
  • Paul Smith Calif.-05
  • Jim Judd Calif.-06
  • Rick Tubbs Calif.-07
  • John Dennis Calif.-08
  • Andy Vidak Calif.-20
  • Tom Watson Calif.-23
  • Mark Reed Calif.-27
  • Larry Andre Calif.-39
  • Steve Southerland Fla.-02
  • Karen Harrington Fla.-20
  • David Ratowitz Ill.-05
  • Bob Dold Ill.-10
  • Teri Newman Ill.-12
  • Bobby Shilling Ill.-17
  • Jason Levesque Maine-02
  • Jeff Miller N.C.-11
  • Roland Straten N.J.-08
  • Tom Mullins N.M.-03
  • Kenneth Wegner Nev.-01
  • Charles Thompson Okla.-05
  • Rob Cornilles Oreg.-01
  • Rick Hellberg Penn.-02
  • Mike Kelly Penn.-03
  • Dee Adcock Penn.-13
  • Bryan Underwood Texas-28
  • Keith Fimian Va.-11

Medical professionals with no political background: 17

  • Renee Ellners N.C.-02
  • Larry Bucshon Ind.-08
  • Scott DesJarlais Tenn.-04
  • Nan Hayworth N.Y.-19
  • Chris Salvino Ariz.-05
  • Mark Weiman Ill.-07
  • Tim Besco Texas-16
  • Donna Campbell Texas-25
  • B.J. Lawson N.C.-04
  • Dan Benishek Mich.-01
  • Robert Steele Mich.-15
  • Mike Fallon Colo.-01
  • Paul Gosar Ariz.-01
  • Jay Fleitman Maine-02
  • Gerry Dembrowski Maine-07
  • Marcelo Cardarelli Md.-02
  • Jill Rowland N.Y.-28

Running for Senate seats

Businessmen with no political background: 7

  • Linda McMahon Conn.
  • Ron Johnson Wis.
  • Gary Bernsten N.Y.*
  • Jay Townsend N.Y.*
  • Len Britton Vt.
  • Jim Bender N.H.*
  • Bill Binnie N.H.*

Medical professionals with no political background: 1

  • Rand Paul Ky.

* Sept. 14 primary

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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