"Issues that the state Legislature spends most of its time and money on happen to be issues I care a lot about, education and health care," Ward said on Thursday.
Ward, a family practice physician who has a doctorate in pharmacology, narrowly defeated health insurance executive Chet Loftis in Tuesday's Republican primary for House District 19. The seat is being vacated by retiring Rep. Jim Nielson.
Ward saw the open seat as a chance to become more deeply involved in policy matters closest to his heart.
"I'm lucky to be in a position to run. I don't have any debt or student loans," he said. "I told myself, 'This chance may not come again in my lifetime.'"
Results aren't official; mail-in ballots are still being counted.
But, assuming Ward holds onto his lead, he has a clear edge in the general election, said Lincoln Nehring, a health policy analyst at Voices for Utah Children. "He has a Democratic opponent, but he is running in a very Republican district."
And if Ward does win, he'll likely get to vote on expanding Medicaid, or Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's "Healthy Utah" plan, a private-market alternative to use public dollars to buy coverage for 110,000 poor, uninsured Utahns.
Herbert had hoped to bring his plan before the Legislature this summer, pending negotiations with the Obama administration. But GOP leaders would prefer to wait until the regular legislative session in January, after the November election.
Ward didn't run on a Medicaid expansion platform.
His campaign centered on the importance of education, speaking out against federal curriculum mandates and large class sizes.
He publicly turned down donations and handouts from business interests, positioning himself as the peoples' candidate.
"This election is a clear cut choice," reads a mailer he sent to voters comparing himself, a family doctor financially backed by individuals, to his opponent Chet Loftis, an insurance lobbyist financed by the insurance, real estate and trial lawyer lobbies.
But Ward didn't hide his support for Herbert's Medicaid plan.
His campaign website has photos of some of his uninsured patients who are dying, or have become disabled, because they can't afford health care. Among them is a man with untreated Crohn's disease. "The inflammation around his intestines has eaten four holes out the side of his abdomen. He needs surgery and very expensive IV (intravenous) medication but he has no insurance so he hasn't gotten them," the website said. "He would be covered under the governor's plan."
Ward said it's too early to tell how debate on Medicaid will shake out. He's one vote, and lawmakers and health professionals are all over the spectrum on the issue, he said.
His primary win does, however, reinforce opinion polls showing a majority of Utah Republicans and conservatives support Herbert's plan.
Support in political corners is also growing. On Thursday the Utah Association of Counties, a group representing the state's 29 county commissions, voted unanimously to support Herbert's plan.
"In the echo chamber of the Republican House, there's a belief that Republicans don't support the Medicaid expansion or Healthy Utah," said Nehring. "But in the real world, everything indicates this is something people do care about and want the Legislature to solve."
A doctor in the House
Recent years have seen a steady rise in the number of health professionals in Utah's Legislature.
Dentist • Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden
Orthodontist • Pete Knudson, R-Brigham City
ER physician • Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights
Pharmacist • Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City
Surgeon • Stewart Barlow, R-Fruit Heights
Family physician • Michael Kennedy, R-Alpine
Nurse • Becky Lockhart, R-Provo
Family physician • Ed Redd, R-Logan
Hospital executive • Douglas Sagers, R-Tooele
Hospital executive • Dean Sanpei, R-Provo