Candidates rely on constituents to tell health care stories

Candidates rely on constituents to tell health care stories
© Greg Nash

Senate Democrats facing tough re-election fights this year are turning to their own constituents to describe their health struggles and addiction battles in starkly personal advertisements at a time when many voters say health care is a top concern.

Many of the emotionally-charged advertisements attack Republican efforts scrap the Affordable Care Act, or highlight the opioid epidemic that has claimed so many thousands of lives.

Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyWhy Congress needs to bring back tax deduction for worker expenses Biden cements spot as 2020 front-runner The Hill's Morning Report - Biden's bid gets under Trump's skin MORE (D-Pa.), running well ahead of his Republican opponent, paid for an advertisement featuring a mother whose daughter overdosed on heroin, leaving her a nine-month old granddaughter.

“I met with Bob Casey and he listened, and then he took action afterwards. There’s no doubt in my mind Bob Casey genuinely cares about the work he’s doing to help the people in this crisis,” Joanne Clough says in the ad.

Missouri, the Democratic super PAC Majority Forward featured a cancer survivor from St. Louis attacking Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillLobbying world Big Dem names show little interest in Senate Gillibrand, Grassley reintroduce campus sexual assault bill MORE’s (D) opponent for joining a lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act.

“It angers me that Attorney General Josh Hawley filed a lawsuit to allow insurance companies to deny care for Missourians with pre-existing conditions,” Eileen Kinsella says in the spot. “Josh Hawley sides with the insurance companies, not the rest of us.”

Hawley responded to criticisms his own advertisement, pushing back against the notion that he would end protections for those with pre-existing conditions.

“Earlier this year, we learned our oldest [son] has a rare chronic disease. Pre-existing condition. We know what that’s like,” Hawley says in his own ad. “I support forcing insurance companies to cover all pre-existing conditions, and Claire McCaskill knows it.”

Democratic strategists say the man-on-the-street approach is not new but it reflects the fact that voters are uniquely unlikely to trust the word of any politician, Democrat or Republican.

“They have always been done, but there’s been a trend in the uptick,” said Amy Gooden, a Democratic ad maker based in Chicago. “People are skeptical about politicians, and having a neighbor tell them it’s okay to feel a certain way is effective.”

Brian Brokaw, a California-based Democratic strategist, said the personal stories are more likely to resonate at a moment when ads can go viral on social media. Few voters are likely to post advertisements featuring a candidate on social media.

“When ads are done well, it increases the likelihood of them being shared widely,” Brokaw said.

Democrats are spending the bulk of their advertising dollars this year to talk to voters about health care, a year after the Republican Congress came within a single vote of repealing Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHarris seeks Iowa edge with army of volunteers North Korean media rips Biden: a 'fool of low IQ' Lessons from Australia: Voters put pocketbooks over climate change, again MORE’s signature domestic policy achievement.

Fully 44 percent of all advertisements House Democratic candidates ran in early September focused on health care, according to an analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project, a nonpartisan ad watcher. Half of advertisements in U.S. Senate races mention health care.

Republicans acknowledge that health care is on voters’ minds; more than a third of the ads House Republican candidates ran mentioned health care, the analysis found.

“The 2018 midterms are turning out to be the year of health care,” Erika Franklin Fowler, the Wesleyan Media Project’s co-director, wrote in the analysis. “Although Republicans are no longer touting unified repeal and replace messages like prior cycles, they also aren’t ignoring the issue, and Democrats — in stark contrast to earlier cycles — are really focusing the bulk of their messaging on health care as their signature issue.”

Tom Bowen, a Democratic strategist in Chicago, said letting voters tell their stories is most effective on an issue like health care, sometimes an abstract concept that can become very personal very quickly.

“I think there is a lot of focus on health care this year and pre-existing conditions, and I think that’s partially a driver of some of this. It’s always pretty smart to make the issues really personal to voters,” Bowen said.