House Incumbent Campaigns As a 'Doctor' Rather Than 'Congressman'

Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich. Flickr user UNC - CFC - USFK

Republican Rep. Dan Benishek is seeking a third term representing Michigan's 1st District in the House, but he's not talking about bills he's passed, funding he's secured, or committees he has served on. In fact, he's barely mentioned his work in Congress at all.

Based on the half-dozen TV ads Benishek has run this cycle, it's not even clear that Benishek is a member of Congress facing a challenge from Army veteran Jerry Cannon. The theme of his campaign has been that he's a trustworthy doctor who cares about families, rather than a productive lawmaker. So far this cycle, all of Benishek's ads show him in scrubs or a white coat, and all but one refer to him as "Dr. Dan," "Dr. Benishek," or simply "Doc."

In fact, this is the second cycle in which Benishek has run for reelection as "Dr. Dan," focusing entirely on his medical experience and hardly mentioning his congressional work.

"I think being a doctor makes him different," a constituent says in one ad this cycle, adding that Benishek is "more aware of needs."

It makes perfect sense. Neither party is popular, so incumbents naturally have focused on their personal stories rather than their work in Congress.

Campaign consultant Dan Allen said it would be unreasonable to expect a relatively new lawmaker to abandon what made him popular in the first place after a term or two in office.

"If your biography and background are your strength, you don't want to get away from that," Allen said. "It's not as if Congress is so popular that people will vote for you because of that. But people do tend to trust doctors."

Few ads mention Congress at all this cycle, and those that do mention it in a negative way, said Michael Franz, codirector of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ads.

Benishek's race is one of a handful in which current or former lawmakers have downplayed their role in Congress. In California's 7th District, Democratic Rep. Ami Bera, another doctor, often appears in scrubs, while former Rep. Doug Ose, who served from 1998 to 2005, simply says, "I'm running for Congress because I'm fed up with the incompetence and gridlock." In New Hampshire, former Rep. Frank Guinta mentions his work as mayor of Manchester but not as a congressman. And in Illinois, neither Rep. Brad Schneider, a Democrat, nor former Rep. Bob Dold, a Republican, focus on their legislative experience.

It's not necessarily misleading, Franz said, but incumbents naturally want to promote whatever part of their biography seems most trustworthy and downplay the fact that they're part of a historically unproductive Congress.

"Being a mayor, having executive experience, being a doctor, running a business—they're all positive," Franz said.

It's also not surprising, Franz said, for a conservative who was elected in the tea-party wave of 2010 to continue promoting himself as an outsider. Regardless of how long he has been in office, Benishek is unlikely to change that approach, Franz said.

"Republicans still probably see themselves as an insurgent class of incumbents," Franz said.

And it's especially important for Benishek to cast himself "as a man of the people," Michigan-based Democratic consultant Jill Alper said, because Cannon has made congressional pay and perks a main focus of his campaign. One ad by Cannon starts by saying, "There were no first-class seats in Vietnam," and calls for a congressional pay cut. As long as Congress's dysfunction is a major topic in campaigns, incumbents like Benishek probably won't even focus on their successes in office, Alper said.

Some of Benishek's ads do offer hints at his work as a lawmaker, infrequently showing pictures of him wearing a jacket with a congressional pin on the lapel, or mentioning his support for Down syndrome research funding or vocational education programs. But others almost seem to pretend that he's not a member of Congress.

"I haven't spent the last 30 years running for political office," Benishek said in a 2012 ad during his first bid for reelection. "I spent it helping seniors, veterans, and my patients, because I'm a doctor."

(Image via Flickr user UNC - CFC - USFK)

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