One Congressman’s Secret Weapon in His Fight for Political Survival: Dentistry

The dental lobby has shown it’s willing to spend thousands to protect one of its own, and Mike Simpson’s going to need it.

A volunteers gets dental tools for dentists giving free dental care at a clinic at the Los Angeles Sports Arena sponsored by Remote Area Medical (RAM), a Tennessee-based nonprofit, in Los Angeles on April 28, 2010. RAM is offering free medical, vision and dental services to those without health insurance for about 1,200 people per day in the week-long Los Angeles event.
National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
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Shane Goldmacher
Jan. 20, 2014, 1:59 p.m.

Rep. Mike Simpson is a 15-year vet­er­an of Con­gress and a close ally of Speak­er John Boehner. But as the Idaho Re­pub­lic­an fends off a stiff tea-party chal­lenge in 2014, the fact that he’s a dent­ist may prove to be just as im­port­ant.

The in­flu­en­tial dent­al lobby is ex­pec­ted to go all out this year to pro­tect Simpson, one of only two dent­ists on Cap­it­ol Hill. His primary is still five months away, but the dent­ists’ in­de­pend­ent cam­paign arm has already dropped $22,000 in mail­ers and spent an­oth­er $20,000 last week di­al­ing up Idaho voters to gauge the dy­nam­ics on the ground.

Simpson, 63, faces the biggest polit­ic­al test of his ca­reer as the well-heeled Club for Growth has vowed to ex­tract him from Con­gress. The club named Simpson as its first tar­get for de­feat in 2014 and is back­ing his tea-party chal­lenger, Bry­an Smith, who has already raised more than $525,000, in­clud­ing his own money.

Enter the dent­ists. “We’ll try to raise as much as we can for him,” said Mike Gra­ham, seni­or vice pres­id­ent of gov­ern­ment and pub­lic af­fairs for the Amer­ic­an Dent­al As­so­ci­ation.

If his­tory is a guide, the latex-gloved cav­alry can fill cam­paign cof­fers as well as they fill cav­it­ies.

When the oth­er lone dent­ist in Con­gress, Rep. Paul Gos­ar, R-Ar­iz., first won his seat in 2010, nearly 600 dent­ists con­trib­uted a total of $265,000 to his cam­paign. Dent­ists ac­coun­ted for more than 40 per­cent of Gos­ar’s total haul and more than half his donors.

“People ac­tu­ally in my first primary said, ‘You get a lot of your money from dent­ists,’ ” Gos­ar said. “And I said, ‘I’m not run­ning from it. I’m proud to be a dent­ist.’ “

Then, when Gos­ar faced a tea-party chal­lenger in 2012 backed by the Club for Growth, the in­de­pend­ent-ex­pendit­ure arm of the dent­al lobby sprung in­to ac­tion, pour­ing $150,000 in­to his race. Dent­ists na­tion­wide in­jec­ted an­oth­er $210,000 dir­ectly in­to his cof­fers. All told, dent­ists from 47 states and the Dis­trict of Columbia have in­ves­ted in Gos­ar in the past four years.

“I’m one of the dent­ists’ dent­ists. I came up be­ing in­volved in grass­roots dentistry,” said Gos­ar, who also served on the ADA’s gov­ern­ment-af­fairs coun­cil. “Mike might have a little harder time with [rais­ing dent­al money] be­cause he just didn’t do all the steps that I did.”

Still, Simpson is a val­ued ally for the dent­al as­so­ci­ation, whose polit­ic­al ac­tion com­mit­tee has spent an av­er­age of $2.5 mil­lion in each of the past three elec­tion cycles, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Re­spons­ive Polit­ics. Simpson is a seni­or law­maker, a mem­ber of the speak­er’s kit­chen Cab­in­et, and the chair­man of an Ap­pro­pri­ations sub­com­mit­tee — a post power­ful enough to be nick­named a “car­din­al” on Cap­it­ol Hill.

“It makes a dif­fer­ence, sure, to have an ap­pro­pri­at­or who is a dent­ist,” Gra­ham said. The group’s in­de­pend­ent arm spent $55,000 on pro-Simpson mail­ers in his 2012 primary, even as Simpson won by nearly 40 per­cent­age points.

In 2012, The Wall Street Journ­al re­por­ted that Simpson helped stall fund­ing for a piece of the new health care law the dent­al lobby op­posed. In 2013, the Amer­ic­an Dent­al As­so­ci­ation lis­ted two “ac­tion alerts” on its web­site, ur­ging its mem­bers to write in sup­port of le­gis­la­tion. Both bills were au­thored by Gos­ar, and Simpson was among the earli­est co­spon­sors of both.

Simpson, who joined his fath­er’s dent­al prac­tice in Black­foot, Idaho, and con­tin­ued prac­ti­cing even while serving in the State­house, hasn’t tapped the na­tion’s net­work of dent­ists for fin­an­cial sup­port yet for 2014. He re­por­ted zero dona­tions from dent­ists in the first three quar­ters of 2013. But that is ex­pec­ted to change.

“We are ag­gress­ively reach­ing out to a lot of friends and al­lies to raise the re­sources we need to com­mu­nic­ate Mike’s con­ser­vat­ive re­cord of de­liv­er­ing res­ults for the people of Idaho,” said Todd Cran­ney, a seni­or Simpson ad­viser. “Ob­vi­ously, Mike be­ing a dent­ist, he’s go­ing to have a group of folks there who are go­ing to be very sup­port­ive.”

The GOP primary in Idaho’s 2nd Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict, which stretches from Boise to the Wyom­ing bor­der, has be­come something of a proxy battle in the on­go­ing civil war between the Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment (back­ing Simpson) and the tea-party wing of the GOP (back­ing Smith). The U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce paid $150,000 for a flight of tele­vi­sion and Web ads in Decem­ber bol­ster­ing Simpson.

Barney Keller, a spokes­man for the Club for Growth, said his or­gan­iz­a­tion is ready to take on the cham­ber, the dent­ists, and any­one else. The club spent nearly $600,000 in its un­suc­cess­ful bid to oust Gos­ar in 2012 — al­most as much as Gos­ar him­self raised.

“I think that once you drill down on Mike Simpson’s at­ro­cious lib­er­al re­cord, you’ll find lots of morsels, such as his votes for TARP, for re­peated tax in­creases, and to in­crease the size and scope of gov­ern­ment,” Keller said. “We’re sure that spe­cial-in­terest groups that fa­vor big gov­ern­ment will fight tooth and nail to keep Mike Simpson, but they should brace for im­pact, as you can ex­pect us to be force­ful.”

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