Dr. Alieta Eck didn’t enter the race for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate with high name recognition, but she believes her very lack of political experience is a strength in contrast to Steve Lonegan, her better-known opponent.
While the few polls tracking the GOP race show Eck, 62, trailing by a wide margin, she believes that a low turnout primary combined with motivated supporters “could spell victory for me.”
A first-time candidate, Eck has based her campaign on making personal contact with voters and on social media. She adds that she offers a positive agenda, not just criticism of current policy.
“The more people hear that I have real positive solutions to a lot of what’s ailing the country,” the more they support her, she said.
But that criticism is deep and expansive. Perhaps Eck’s signature issue is the repeal of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, along with the end of federal administration of the federal Medicaid program.
She doesn’t believe healthcare policy should be pursued at the federal level, but should instead be developed on a state-by-state basis. Her solution for providing healthcare to low-income residents in New Jersey is a plan in which doctors would receive liability immunity in return for volunteering to treat low-income patients.
An internal-medicine doctor, Eck has treated low-income patients for me at the Zarephath Health Center, a clinic she co-founded with her husband, Dr. John Eck, in 2003 in their hometown of Franklin Township in Somerset County.
Both she and her husband work six hours per week at the clinic, which they founded to help churches meet the healthcare needs of the poor, uninsured and underinsured. She said there were multiple advantages to providing free care.
“If you charge them and say this costs $20, they think that is what it is worth, if you say it’s free, then they’re grateful,” said Eck, adding that when patients later can pay for care, they understand that they will go to a practice “that charges a fair fee.”
Although she and Lonegan agree on many things, she believes primary voters should choose her because she offers alternative solutions to the problems facing New Jerseyans, not just criticisms of the Democratic agenda.
“I think he’s run many times and lost – the voters always chose somebody else and I’m thinking they might do the same thing this time,” she said. “He can articulate the problems well, but he doesn’t give positive solutions or he doesn’t articulate the solutions – cutting Medicaid is not a viable solution if you don’t have an alternative to care for those who are disadvantaged.”
Beyond healthcare, Eck also wants to see a more limited role for government.
She favors replacing the income tax system with the “fair tax,” a national consumption tax proposal that is similar to a sales tax. It would be combined with subsidies to offset the impact on low-income residents.
“By eliminating the IRS and just the whole income tax system, the huge cost of compliance would go away,” Eck said.
Along with cutting federal Medicaid administration, she would also eliminate the federal Department of Education. She would like to see states institute school vouchers, ideally with any family choosing any public or private school to spend the voucher funds.
“School vouchers would wind up being a huge spending cut, if you had the tuition follow the child and the parents were able to choose the best place for the child to be educated,” she said. “I don’t see any place in the Constitution for the federal government to be involved in the day-to-day education of children.”
Eck describes herself as “pro-life,” although she said she has “no illusions that we’re going to overturn Roe v. Wade – that cat’s been let out of the bag a long time ago. But what I try to do is convince people of the value of life – as a physician my role is to preserve life and that’s what I try to help people understand.”
Eck said she is concerned that the federal government could start to limit healthcare for elderly people.
On immigration, Eck would concentrate on increasing border security, adding that creating a path to citizenship for illegal or undocumented immigrants could penalize “those who came here legally and waited their turn and ignoring the fact that others came without permission is not fair.” She added that “it’s a very difficult issue” and she would need to study more before “jumping to give mass immunity to those who broke the laws to get here.”
Eck also has served as the past president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a national organization whose members believe in reducing any government role in healthcare. While Eck has received some donations from other doctors, her fundraising totals have been a fraction of Lonegan’s.
From July 1 to July 24, Eck had raised $18,283 in addition to the $20,290 she had on hand and spent $20,512, leaving her with $18,061.
Eck is a lifelong New Jersey resident, except for her medical school years at St. Louis School of Medicine in Missouri. She has five children between the ages of 21 and 33 and is a member of Zarephath Christian Church, a part of the small Pillar of Fire denomination, an offshoot of Methodism.
In addition, Eck participates in Christian Care Medi-Share, a ministry-based healthcare cost-sharing program whose members are exempt from the ACA’s mandates under an exemption written into the law.
Monmouth University Polling Institute Director Patrick Murray said Eck faces long odds.
“It’s difficult for somebody with no organization, no electoral experience, no preexisting relationships with party leaders and no money,” Murray said.
While the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg also hadn’t run for office before his 1982 victory, unlike Eck he had built up strong ties with the party because he acted as a key fundraiser. To the extent that there’s been a party establishment pick in this campaign, it’s been Lonegan.
Both Eck and Lonegan speak the same conservative language, Murray said. “Nothing differentiates the two of them — even if people did hear her message, it’s very similar to the message Lonegan is sending.”
Franklin Mayor Brian Levine, an Eck supporter, believes that while the challenges are real, Eck has a chance to overcome them.
Levine credits Eck with making the Zarephath Health Center work despite many challenges during a 10-year period in which healthcare costs rose steadily nationally and in the state.
“That’s someone who can actually get things done, so I’ve always been impressed with her,” Levine, adding that she had a vision for the center and has seen it through.
Levine, whose 2009 Republican candidacy for governor was halted by a petition challenge by Lonegan, emphasized that his position is in support of Eck, “not against anyone else.”
Levine said Eck may have more name recognition by primary day.
“She’s gotten the word out and frankly it’s more difficult from coming from behind the pack, but anything’s doable – it’s the poll on Election Day that counts,” he said.