Why you should care

Because what once was a strength for Trump is now pummeling his party.

Yesterday, Donald Trump unrolled a plan to overhaul Medicare drug payments, seeking to secure as much as $17 billion over five years in cheaper medicine while bringing American prices in line with other key nations. The action, taken with just days before the midterm elections, is a reminder of how the president’s promises to tackle prescription opioid abuse while also securing more affordable access to medicine helped get him elected in 2016. But two years later, a different narrative is increasingly playing out for Republican candidates. Now, instead of leaders facing the opioid epidemic head-on, they are being painted by critics as the culprits behind its rise. Rather than supporters of a free market system that lowers drug prices naturally, they are being portrayed as the face of a lobbyist-paid Washington that paved the way for soaring drug prices.

That issue is most heated in Tennessee, home to a competitive and crucial Senate race between GOP Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn and Democrat Phil Bredesen, who has offered a cheerily moderate image on every issue — except opioids, where the former governor has come out swinging. It is echoed in West Virginia, where Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin is hitting Republican challenger Patrick Morrissey for his record of lobbying for pharmaceutical companies. And it is evident in New Jersey, where incumbent Democrat Bob Menendez, amid a corruption scandal of his own, has shot back by accusing Republican candidate Bob Hugin of unfairly raising prices on cancer drugs while CEO of the drug company Celgene.

Nationally, Democrats have tried to capitalize on that shift. In late September, Majority Forward — a left-leaning “dark money” group that, because of its 501(c)(4) nonprofit status, doesn’t have to disclose its donors — booked nearly $5 million worth of ads attacking Blackburn’s record in Tennessee and Morrissey’s record in West Virginia. The former criticized a Blackburn bill that helped weaken the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to fight the spread of illegal drugs, while the latter pointed out that Morrissey had lobbied for pharmaceutical companies in the past (and that his wife continues to). “How can you trust someone who got rich while West Virginians suffered?” the anti-Morrissey ad asked.

Blackburn has said the law, which she co-sponsored, had “unintended consequences.” She backed a Senate bill led by Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander in June to bolster federal support for addiction recovery and prescription controls. However, while campaigning in late September, she missed the House-Senate compromise bill, which passed by a vote of 393 to 8. Morrissey has said he never personally lobbied on opioid-related cases. Neither responded to our requests for comment.

Voters are definitely concerned about their senators, who seem to be bought and paid for by the pharmaceutical industry.

Chris Hayden, communications director, Senate Majority PAC

Meanwhile, the Chuck Schumer–associated Senate Majority PAC, which shares offices with and has received donations from Majority Forward, launched a series of New Jersey ads in mid-October attacking Hugin for raising prices on cancer drugs. “Voters are definitely concerned about their senators, who seem to be bought and paid for by the pharmaceutical industry at a time when we have an opioid epidemic, rising premiums and drug costs,” says Chris Hayden, communications director for Senate Majority PAC. Hugin defended himself, telling OZY he was “never aware of one patient in financial need who didn’t have access to lifesaving medicine,” and that increases in research spending, to find more “lifesaving” solutions, far outpaced price increases.

While immigration was perhaps the biggest issue in the last presidential election, a number of experts believe health care is for these midterms. The opioid issue is “a way to talk about health care without having to talk about Obamacare,” says Tom Lee, a Tennessee political strategist and a senior adviser to Democrat Harold Ford in his failed Senate bid in 2006. The Affordable Care Act remains unfavorable in many red states even though its protection of those with pre-existing conditions is widely popular nationwide. Opioids “open a door to an issue that people … can easily walk through,” Lee says. The key isn’t just attacking Republicans’ records, but adding a bipartisan air, Hayden says: “Democrats are also in every state saying … they are willing to work across the aisle to get things done, to fight this epidemic and put politics aside. It’s that one-two punch that’s really important.”

That focus has been reflected in Democratic advertising spending, half of which has gone toward hitting Republicans for their health care records — more than twice the mentions of the next-closest issue, taxes, according to an analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project. And it is an area Democrats compete well in at a time when voter enthusiasm appears to be higher for those on the left. “Republican voters are telling us they are more interested in security: national security and anti-terror,” Lee says. “Polling in Tennessee has consistently shown that Democratic voters are much more interested in health care.”

Some Republicans are fighting back by painting the other side as just as culpable. In New Jersey, Hugin has ran ads noting that Menendez accepted $1 million from employees of pharma industries and hasn’t worked to make drugs less expensive or to address the opioid issue. And in Tennessee, the Republican Senate Leadership Fund ran an ad accusing Bredesen of ignoring the growing opioid problem as governor from 2003 to 2011. Through the ads, the problematic Blackburn vote, which looked like a “death blow,” Lee says, was “deftly turned into a both sides’ problem.”

But the opioid issue still plays especially well for Democrats this cycle, considering that they are out of power and, thus, the option for change. With Republicans boasting majorities in about two-thirds of statehouses and all branches of federal government, the past that caused this drug-addled present has more of a chance to haunt the GOP. “Members have voting records, lobbyists have history,” Lee says. “And those things follow you.”

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