Mark Plaster has been an emergency room doctor and a lawyer, served two tours of duty in Iraq, founded three medical magazines — and once saved Joseph R. Biden’s life. Now he wants to defy the odds and win a congressional seat as a Republican in Maryland.
The idea would have been far-fetched before, but the 2014 gubernatorial victory of Republican Larry Hogan has given Mr. Plaster hope that he can oust Rep. John Sarbanes, a five-term incumbent.
“Since the 1980s, people have told me, ‘You should be involved in politics. You should run for office.’ And I said, ‘I’m a Republican. When you live in Maryland, you don’t get a conservative voice,’” Mr. Plaster said. “The tipping point for me was when Gov. Hogan won. It said to us that the voters of Maryland were willing to hear a simple fiscal message. Timing in politics is everything, and 2016 is critical.”
He hopes to sell himself as a political newcomer with a wealth of valuable outside experience and plans to follow the Hogan playbook: focusing on the economy. In his campaign, Mr. Hogan was able to avoid social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion that might have cost him otherwise.
“We have a $20 trillion debt. It’s an unsustainable trajectory,” Mr. Plaster said. “The social issues are off the table. We need to focus on issues where the majority of Americans will come together, like getting the economy strong again.”
Political observers doubt Mr. Plaster will unseat Mr. Sarbanes, whose father, Paul, was a longtime U.S. senator from Maryland.
“In my view, Mr. Plaster has two chances — slim and none,” said Maryland politics commentator Barry Rascovar, adding that improving the Republican newcomer’s lack of name recognition would require millions of dollars of campaign donations.
Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, counters that Mr. Hogan carried the 3rd Congressional District by 24,000 votes, so a Republican can win there.
Because 2016 is a presidential election year, more Democrats likely will turn out to vote than in midterm elections, giving Mr. Sarbanes an extra boost in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1.
“In a Democratic state with a very high Democratic turnout expected next November, the odds are stacked against Mark Plaster to the point that it would take a miracle for him to win,” Mr. Rascovar said.
Mr. Plaster’s career path has been winding, and his decision to join the military came late in life, when he signed up for the Navy Reserve. Mr. Plaster and his wife decided that if any of their children ever had to go to war, he would go too.
So when their eldest son, U.S. Naval Academy graduate Graham Plaster, was deployed, Mr. Plaster went too, commissioned as a lieutenant commander because of his medical experience.
During his second tour in Iraq in 2008, he met a young Iraqi interpreter, “Alex,” and the two bonded. But Alex had a secret — he had been studying Christianity behind the backs of the country’s authorities, a risky move in a Muslim country where he could be charged with apostasy.
Alex, who asked that his real name not be used for his family’s safety, said Mr. Plaster gave him the strength to commit to his new religion. The physician had Alex baptized and invited him to the U.S., where he now lives with Mr. Plaster and his wife and is applying for asylum.
Mr. Plaster said his firsthand look at a war zone shaped his goals to give soldiers the best equipment and monitor how the military spends its money. When he was with soldiers, he saw that their radios were broken and equipment was out of date — problems that could endanger lives.
In Congress, he said, he intends to focus on medical legislation and the economy, particularly through repealing the Affordable Care Act. Health care fixes include easing liability for doctors and emphasizing telemedicine, where doctors can consult patients remotely, he said.
But Mr. Rascovar said that attacking Obamacare in Maryland might not be effective.
“If it’s such a disaster for the state, how come Larry Hogan hasn’t done anything about it?” he said. “The general public is not up in arms about Obamacare. For most people, it’s a nonissue. So Republicans may talk about it as a cutting-edge issue, but I’ve yet to see where it’s played a role in any race in Maryland.”
Mr. Plaster said he is aware of his underdog status in going head to head with a popular Democratic incumbent, but he has specific plans to fix problems in the country and a different viewpoint that could make him an asset in the national legislature.
He promised to pursue bipartisanship — a must for a Republican running in a central Maryland district that includes Annapolis and parts of Baltimore and neighboring counties.
Graham Plaster joked that his father’s bipartisan tilt began in the 1980s, when he was working at a Delaware hospital and found himself treating Mr. Biden, then a U.S. senator, for a brain aneurysm.
“They have a picture at my parents’ house with Biden with his arm around my dad that says, ‘Thanks for saving my life,’” Graham Plaster said. “I like to tell my dad, ‘If you ever get into an argument about who’s more pro-life, you can say, “Well, I saved the vice president’s life, I’m really pro-life.”’