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Medical PACs boost candidates with health care ties

Campaign donors look to elect legislators with personal knowledge of medical issues

By Andy Marso | September 17, 2014

Brian Caswell is a Democrat running against a Republican incumbent for a seat in the Kansas House — a tall order in most of the state's 125 districts.

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But according to Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission filings, Caswell, of Baxter Springs, raised more money than his opponent, Rep. Michael Houser of Columbus, before the primary races this year. And by the July 24 reporting deadline, Caswell's campaign was nearly as well-funded as Houser's, despite the incumbent's cash-on-hand head start.

Caswell's secret?

He's a pharmacist, which gives him a ready-made network of donors and the support of multiple political action committees.

Brian Caswell, a Baxter Springs pharmacist, is vying for a spot in the Kansas Legislature. The Democrat faces incumbent Rep. Michael Houser, R-Columbus, and has received campaign donations from several pharmacists and pharmacy political action committees.

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Medical PACs want those who know their industries in the Legislature, so medical professionals — and those close to them — enjoy the advantage of PAC money when they decide to run for office.

Caswell received donations from several pharmacists, as well as $250 from the Kansas Independent Pharmacy PAC and $500 from the Kansas Pharmacists Association PAC, during the primary season.

The independent pharmacy PAC donated to 30 House candidates before the filing deadline. Twenty-nine were incumbents. The other was Caswell.

Pete Stern, chief executive of the Kansas Independent Pharmacy Service Corp., said that's no slight to Houser — he just happens to be running against a pharmacist.

"It’s purely that we know we will be able to have direct access to Brian if he wins that seat and that we will be able to have a representative generally that will know pharmacy and health care immediately," Stern said. "That’s a big plus for us. Health care is extremely complex, and pharmacy is extremely complex.”

The state's most well-funded medical-related PAC, the Kansas Medical Society, made a contribution for similar reasons in the 9th District primary, donating to challenger Chad Van Houden of Chanute.

“Van Houden, his father is a physician, so we had a connection there," said Jerry Slaughter, executive director of the Kansas Medical Society. "We knew him, and obviously his father.”

Slaughter said that like most PACs, his group tends to support incumbents, which is why it also gave a donation to the campaign of Rep. Kent Thompson, an Iola Republican whom Van Houden was attempting to unseat.

“In those cases we try to give support to both and hope the best person prevails,” Slaughter said.

Thompson took 59.9 percent of the vote in the August primary to Van Houden's 40 percent.

In other races in which there was no incumbent, Slaughter's group also looked for medical ties. In the 61st District they chose to donate to Becky Hutchins, a Holton Republican running against St. Marys Democrat Vivien Olson for the right to replace Rep. Richard Carlson, who is not running for re-election.

”She used to be in the Legislature, so she’s got a track record," Slaughter said of Hutchins. "She’s married to a physician, so she’s well-known to us.”

Slaughter said the PAC got involved in a couple other House races in which there was no incumbent, simply because one of the candidates seemed more interested or knowledgeable about health issues.

“That's what we do on any race," Slaughter said. "We try to see if we have a connection with them. Are they interested in health care? Do they know something about it?”

Stern said that's also what the independent pharmacy PAC members want and why they try to promote pharmacists running for office whenever they can.

“For our PAC, we do feel that it’s important to have community pharmacists in the House," Stern said. "We already have (Republican Rep.) Don Hill from Emporia, we already have (Republican Sen.) Vicki Schmidt from the Senate side. Whether they’re chair of a committee or not, the knowledge they bring is indispensable, not only for committee meetings but for the education of other legislators behind the scenes.”

Now Stern's group hopes to add Caswell's name to the roster of pharmacist-legislators.

As government affairs chairman for the pharmacists association, Caswell said he spent years trying to get pharmacists more involved in the Legislature. He figured "now it’s time, maybe I just recruit myself.”

"This has been somewhat of a calling for me for quite a long time,” Caswell said.

His government affairs role meant Caswell also spent years soliciting funds from pharmacists to support, “interestingly enough, mostly Republican candidates.”

Now that money is going to his campaign, Caswell said he's not sure exactly how much he will need to make it a competitive race. Houser, a construction estimator serving his first term, is endorsed by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, which has a well-heeled PAC.

“Whatever we raise, it won’t be enough," Caswell said, "because you've got too deep of pockets on that side of the equation to counteract it."

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