To make it to Congress, Dr. Val Arkoosh (D) first has to beat back the Clinton machine.
In her path is former Rep. Marjorie Margolies (D-Pa.). Her tough vote in 1993 for then-President Clinton’s budget cost the Democrat her seat the following year, but she’s remained a Clinton ally — and become an in-law, when her son married Chelsea Clinton.
That distinction belongs to Arkoosh, who’s looking to pull the upset by leveraging her healthcare expertise and solid fundraising into a win against Margolies and two other Democrats.
The obstetric anesthesiologist and longtime Democratic activist repeatedly trumpeted her work to help pass the Affordable Care Act in an interview at The Hill’s offices. As head of the National Physicians’ Alliance, a pro-ObamaCare group of doctors, she was in Washington, D.C., nearly every week pushing skeptical lawmakers to back the law, delivering speeches and making TV appearances to advocate for the law’s passage.
Arkoosh said that experience made her first consider running for office.
“That accomplishment makes me know that you can actually make a difference. It’s not easy but if we keep at it, the things that we do in this town can really make a difference for the people back home,” she said.
Arkoosh was quick to point out that she had the most cash on hand in the race — just shy of $650,000 — as of the end of 2013. Margolies, despite endorsements from Bill Clinton and other congressional members, including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), had $174,000 heading into this year. State Sen. Daylin Leach (D) had $480,000, and state Rep. Brendan Boyle (D) had $380,000.
A crowded field could benefit the well-known Margolies, but it’s Arkoosh who argues the momentum is on her side.
“I think I’m going to be absolutely in the best position to touch the most voters in this race,” she said about using her fundraising edge in the closing weeks before the May 20 primary election.
Margolies has been pegging her campaign strongly to her Clinton ties, touting that infamous budget vote as proof she would stick by her principles over ideology if reelected. And her campaign has been promoting its Thursday lunch fundraiser with the former president.
But while the backing of the popular former commander in chief and of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton usually brings with it both dollars and excitement from the base, Arkoosh downplayed the importance of the Clintons in the race.
“They really are known for their loyalty and they’re coming in for their family member, and I respect that. I think no one at home is particularly surprised,” she said. “The former congresswoman has been saying for months that President Clinton was going to come in, so when he did — the bigger surprise would have been if he hadn’t, to be quite honest. And really the consensus at home is it’s family, that’s really how I feel about it.”
Margolies has done little public campaigning, according to local sources.
“She’s avoided taking a lot of punches,” said Keegan Gibson, a Pennsylvania politics expert and former managing editor of PoliticsPA.com.
But a recent report in the Huffington Post that says she “turned to her own charity in time of need” during financial troubles a decade ago and “paid herself handsomely” as head of Women’s Campaign International has put her on the defensive.
Margolies’s campaign lambasted the report and even told the Philadelphia Inquirer that it is considering a defamation lawsuit against the Huffington Post. Her campaign didn’t respond to requests from comment from The Hill.
The report has generated headlines locally, but it’s unclear how much damage it will do in the long term unless her opponents use their scant resources to attack her over it.
Margolies isn’t Arkoosh’s only obstacle. Leach has been seeking the progressive mantle in the race and has the endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), as well as the co-chairmen of the House Progressive Caucus, Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.).
But without a clear runner-up to Margolies, it might not matter. Instead, the other two Democrats could end up being Arkoosh’s biggest stumbling block to taking Margolies down.
“She’s the heir apparent, and that’s why she’s attracting all of the establishment support that she has,” Gibson said of Margolies. “If it was just Marjorie Margolies versus one other candidate, it would have been a lot easier for another candidate to throw punches. But with three other candidates, if Margolies loses voters, who do they go to? There isn’t a clear alternative.”