Elizabeth Emken

GOP senate candidate Elizabeth Emken is running against Sen. Dianne Feinstein. (Kirk McCoy / Los Angeles Times / July 20, 2012)

Like many parents of autistic children, Elizabeth Emken's priorities changed when she heard her son's diagnosis. But most parents do not wind up running for U.S. Senate. Emken's 12.5% of the vote in the June primary makes her the GOP challenger to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. She's a UCLA graduate in economics and political science who worked at IBM before launching into more than a decade of lobbying for autism legislation. She'll be in Tampa — home of the Buccaneers football team — for next week's GOP convention. And while a football coach, as her father once was, might assess her chances against Feinstein as "fourth and very long," like so many other parents of autistic kids, Emken is used to those odds.

Veteran GOP office holders chose not to run against Dianne Feinstein. What do you know that they don't?

What is a legitimate or credible candidate for office? I offer something very different from the lifelong career politicians who have worked their way up to run for higher office or those who can parachute in with checks for $5 million or $10 million, and that seems to be the definition of credible or legitimate. I'm rejecting that premise.

So why are you running?

I see solutions and see elected officials who aren't engaging. My congressman [Jerry McNerney (D-Pleasanton); she ran in the 2010 GOP primary in his district and came in last], during an incredibly important conversation about healthcare in 2009, looked right at me and said, "I'm just going to vote with the caucus." I don't care what the political establishment says, Republican, Democrat — I'm a problem solver.

When I went to Washington in 1997 [to lobby Congress], there was zero being done about autism. A bunch of very smart guys said there was no way I could do anything. I did theChildren's HealthAct of 2000; the lead title of that was my bill. It became the engine that pulled an entire train of every other group that had something it wanted to accomplish on healthcare. It goes far beyond autism. I know how to take good ideas and turn them into sensible law at great odds.

You worked to get health insurance coverage for autism into the healthcare reform law. Why do you now oppose a reform you were a part of three years ago?

It started out as a legitimate attempt at healthcare reform but it became an attempt at health insurance reform, two very different things.

If you don't have health insurance you probably don't get healthcare.

True, but both systems need to be reformed. I do consider myself an expert on this. [Covering] preexisting conditions — we absolutely need that. I'm no fan of what I've seen health insurance companies do. I believe in "repeal and replace." Here's the problem. You cannot get true healthcare reform unless you rectify the underlying principles, and that goes back to the federal tax code, [which gives] preferential treatment to large companies. Small businesses and individuals simply cannot compete for coverage. You can either take away the special tax treatment and let the market jump in, or you can do a more equitable tax treatment for everyone.

Why do you have faith Congress would "replace" if it did "repeal"? What can one senator do?

As a single senator, not only can I ensure there is a replacement, we [will] create better coverage for individuals. Not only will I get it done, I believe I will be a leader in the conversation. I give you Sen. Tom Coburn [R-Okla.], who by the way I believe is wrong on a lot — that guy has held up more things. I'm very successful at what I've done. I didn't get there by folding my arms and saying no. I know how to maneuver around these obstacles. Give me a shot.

This is a very expensive state to campaign in; Feinstein's campaign has about $3 million.

We have raised $500,000, $600,000. It's nowhere near enough, of course, but now there's social media, 24-hour cable news — I have to get on the radar, but once you're on the radar, the ability to transmit information is much faster.

You've challenged Sen. Feinstein to debate and that doesn't look like it's going to happen. What topics would you debate?

Water. National security, especially in the context of sequestration [potential automatic defense and non-defense budget cuts]. Energy. Jobs and the continuous bleeding of businesses out of California overseas and out of state. What are you doing for us, Sen. Feinstein? Do you really have the attention and the energy to understand what families are going through? She's had an illustrious career [but] we need new energy and a fresh perspective.

Abortion rights is one clear difference between the parties.

You have to know my personal story. My son is a blessing in every way. He's one of the hardest-working, happiest children you'll meet. The genetics of autism are real, but there are also environmental triggers. If we can identify that you're vulnerable for something [like having an autistic child] and that becomes enough of a reason not to take a risk [of giving birth], that's a slippery slope. And it stops us from addressing what I think is the true culprit — changes in our environment that have led to a huge increase in not just autism but a lot of auto immune disorders and mental disorders. So my view on life comes from an angle that we sometimes take the easier path rather than the more difficult one.

What do you mean by an easier path? To have an abortion?

Yes. My view on valuing life is very broad for the disabled, for anyone where we can start saying, I really don't want [a child with] red hair.