Senate Democrats used their truncated August recess to talk to their constituents about one key issue: Health care.
And though they are returning to Washington tonight, they have no plans to stop talking about it.
That’s a remarkable turnaround for Democrats who have been on the defensive about health care for the better part of a decade. Obamacare played a major role in their loss of control of the House in the first midterm election of President Obama’s presidency in 2010. But now, they’re hoping to take back the House and retain their seats in the Senate largely by running on the merits of the Affordable Care Act.
Over their 10-day mini break, Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) held a roundtable discussion with voters about health care, as did Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who held his third roundtable this year focused specifically on pre-existing conditions. And Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) also met with voters with pre-existing conditions on Tuesday.
“Cutting people off from insurance and making it harder for people to get insurance, we’re all still gonna pay the bill because in America we’re not going to stop people at the door at the emergency room and I’m sorry you don’t have health insurance, we’re gonna let you die,” she said, according to Missourinet.
In Nevada, Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen, who is hoping to unseat GOP Sen. Dean Heller, also held a public meeting with voters with pre-existing conditions. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) met with health care providers and patients to talk pre-existing conditions, and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who is vying for the open Senate seat there, also met with constituent groups to discuss health care.
“It doesn’t matter which community you are in, health care is the number-one issue that Arizonans are talking about,” Sinema told the Arizona Daily Star. “It is not just Arizonans who don’t have health-care coverage, many of those who are expressing concerns and fear are Arizonans who do have coverage but cannot afford it.”
As campaign cycles go, it’s still early in this one. And the deluge of ads will really heat up come fall. Republicans still see an opening to talk about rising costs of health care and President Trump continues to declare that the ACA is dead. But unlike years past when the GOP could run on an anti-Obamacare message, this year the party is more likely to focus on other issues like tax cuts and job creation.
It’s harder for GOP candidates to make their case that health care policy is failing in the first election where they are in control of both houses in Congress and the White House. And recent scuttlebutt that Republicans would consider another repeal effort if they held Congress may not be helpful this cycle.
And so Democrats, if August activity is the precursor to the fall campaign, are going all in on health care.
Earlier this month, the New York Times’ Margot Sanger-Katz had a great anecdote from an event with McCaskill. The senator, who may be in the toughest fight of her career, asked voters to stand if they have a pre-existing condition. There were reportedly few people left in their seats.
The Democrats and the groups who support them have homed in specifically on the warning that if the ACA is struck down, people with pre-existing conditions would lose protection. Notably, McCaskill and Manchin, two of the Democrats’ most vulnerable members, are running against state attorneys general who joined a lawsuit arguing the ACA should be deemed unconstitutional. If the law were struck down, it would take with it protections for people with past and current health conditions.
Before the Senate left, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) pledged to keep health care front and center this month in Congress, which is in keeping with Democrats’ election strategy this year. Schumer’s office declined to show its hand, but on the floor he detailed exactly what the Democrats would be pushing for, including votes to protect people with pre-existing conditions and a Medicare buy-in program. They’re unlikely to get those votes, but that’s all part of the game plan to keep the attention on health care.
“The number one thing Americans want is health care, and we Democrats will spend August recess focusing on that issue, and forcing Republicans to cast votes or deny votes on those important issues,” Schumer said. “It’s a great opportunity, not just for Democrats, not just for Republicans, but for America. We are going to do it.”
The first television ad the campaign arm for the Democrats released in 2017 was about health care. It showed a man selling his car and a woman pawning her engagement ring. Then it cuts to them sitting at the hospital bedside of a sick child.
Most of the heavy ad buys are still to come, but an independent analysis of political ads so far this cycle found pro-Democrat ads have been overwhelmingly about health care. According to Kantar Media/CMAG data by the Wesleyan Media Project, “An astounding 63 percent of pro-Democratic ads for U.S. House discuss healthcare, and 16 percent contain an explicit statement about being in favor of the Affordable Care Act. U.S. Senate contests are less likely to feature health care, but it is still the top issue, appearing in over a quarter (28 percent) of all ad airings.”
Take Rosen, the congresswoman running against Heller. She has a television ad that shows her talking to voters about their anxieties over the ACA being repealed. She says in the ad that ACA has “real problems,” but repealing it isn’t the answer.
It’s a strategy divergent from previous years when Democrats were defensive of their support for Obamacare. They’d make macro arguments about the millions of people who would lose coverage without it. But now, with the focus on pre-existing conditions, they’ve found a way to make it personal and accessible for voters.
“What we’re seeing on the trail is that health care remaining the defining issue of the election and voters are aware and concerned that GOP policies will increase their costs and jeopardize their coverage and voters are preparing to hold GOP candidates accountable on this issue,” said David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
When asked, most Republicans will say they support keeping protections for pre-existing conditions. For example, when asked, McCaskill’s opponent, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, said he thinks“insurance companies should be forced to cover pre-existing conditions.”
For his part, Hawley’s first television ad of the campaign was about his work as a clerk on the Supreme Court and accused McCaskill of supporting “liberal activist judges.”
In a press release in response to the ad, McCaskill’s campaign said, “Josh Hawley is suing to strip protections for nearly 2.5 million Missourians with pre-existing conditions.”