Health care defined the 2018 midterms, with Democrats across the spectrum crediting a consistent message about defending Obamacare, protecting people with pre-existing conditions and reining in prescription drug prices as the key to taking back the House of Representatives.
So while it is no surprise that the coronavirus is by far the most popular topic in political advertising this year — dominating the presidential, Senate and House races with nearly 40 percent of all political ads — it is also unsurprising to see health care becoming a central advertising issue, particularly in congressional races.
(Of course, the pandemic is a health care issue, but for our purposes we’re talking about health care ads that deal with other broad policy issues like the Affordable Care Act, prescription drug prices and pre-existing conditions.)
Over the past 30 days, health care has been the second most popular issue in Senate races, with just under $13 million spent on health care-related ads. In House races, it was similarly popular, with $2.5 million spent, according to Advertising Analytics.
Democrats have largely been on the offensive. In Senate races over the past 30 days, Democratic candidates and outside groups have spent $10.3 million on television ads on health care, while Republican candidates and groups have spent $2.4 million. In House race spending, Democrats have a $2.1 million to $365,000 advantage on health care ads.
One of the central lines of attack for Democrats concerns protections for pre-existing conditions. Multiple Democratic ads portray congressional votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, led by Republicans, as efforts to strip those protections, and roughly a third of the health care ad spending over the past week focused on pre-existing conditions.
Vulnerable Republican senators have been the main targets, with new ads attacking Senator Martha McSally in Arizona, Senator Steve Daines in Montana and Senator Thom Tillis in North Carolina over their votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. (Republicans have generally said that they’ll protect pre-existing conditions, but it’s not clear how.)
Major Democratic super PACs are running similar ads in competitive House races. In California’s 21st Congressional District, where former Representative David Valadao is running to reclaim the seat he lost in 2018, House Majority PAC has highlighted votes he made while in Congress to repeal the A.C.A.
If this sounds familiar, it is. In 2018, this was the No. 1 line of attack for Democrats.
Another common attack line from Democrats has been highlighting campaign contributions from pharmaceutical and health insurance companies. In Montana, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee attacked Mr. Daines for taking more than $700,000 in campaign contributions “from the drug and insurance industries.” In Arizona, Senate Majority PAC, a major Democratic super PAC, attacked Ms. McSally for taking $600,000 from “insurance companies.”
Of course, this is a common political tactic, and it obfuscates how much of that money might have come from small-dollar donors who happen to work in those heath care fields. But it also shows how villainous the health insurance and pharmaceutical companies have become in the eyes of many voters. On the Republican side, President Trump has railed against pharmaceutical companies and has spent more than $1 million on advertising that denounced “greedy drug companies.”
In ads supporting Republicans, there is little to no talk of the Affordable Care Act. Rather, pre-existing conditions are discussed anecdotally. In one ad from the campaign of Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a man recalls how Ms. Collins supported research and funding for patients with the genetic muscular disorder that his sons were born with.
Republicans have attacked Democrats on health care by linking candidates to the “Medicare for all” proposal championed by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. In New York’s 24th Congressional District, the National Republican Congressional Committee links Dana Balter, who is challenging Representative John Katko, to Mr. Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, though Ms. Balter supports keeping a role for private insurance under Medicare for all.
Another ad from the N.R.C.C. uses Mr. Biden’s criticism of Medicare for all from the Democratic presidential primary debates to attack Kara Eastman, a candidate in Nebraska’s Second Congressional District, who supports Medicare for all.
It’s unlikely that these health care issues will surpass the coronavirus as a political messaging agent heading into November. But it’s quite likely that this is just the beginning of a sustained campaign on health care as the candidates enter the final sprint.
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Ad of the week: Trump raises hope for a vaccine
The Trump campaign has inserted one of the country’s greatest hopes for overcoming the coronavirus pandemic — the push to develop an effective vaccine — into the presidential race with his latest campaign ad.
The message: The ad opens with the camera panning across bottles labeled “Covid-19 Coronavirus Vaccine” while a narrator claims that “the finish line is approaching” for a vaccine. (Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notified public health officials to prepare for a possible fall distribution, Dr. Moncef Slaoui, the top scientist on Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s initiative to develop a vaccine as quickly as possible, recently warned that the chance of successful vaccine results by October was “very, very low.”)
Talk of a vaccine is quickly followed by a promise to bring back “the greatest economy the world has ever seen,” a promise that hinges more on President Trump’s hope than on any tangible plans or platforms that he has released.
The ad attempts to draw a contrast between Mr. Trump’s pledge to rebuild the economy and remarks from Joe Biden, using a selectively edited clip that shows Mr. Biden saying he would “shut it down.” (The clip comes from an interview in which Mr. Biden said he would only shut down the country again if scientists recommended doing so.)
The takeaway: While the most vocal message out of the Trump campaign has been a strident stoking of racial divisions amid the protests against racism and police brutality around the country, the new ad is a recognition that the president’s re-election bid cannot simply ignore the coronavirus pandemic, particularly as many polls find the virus is the top concern of voters around the country.
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