Democrats' closing ad argument: All about health care

CNN's Nia-Malika Henderson discusses how Democrats are using health care as their midterms message. It is a part of CNN's "The Politics of Us" series, which will explore the politics of identity and how it relates to the 2018 midterm elections.

Posted: Sep 13, 2018 1:24 PM
Updated: Sep 13, 2018 1:27 PM

It's just a 30-second spot, but it says everything you need to know about Democrats and 2018.

Senate Democrat Joe Manchin, ambling through a field in hunting clothes, highlights what he calls a threat to West Virginia -- a lawsuit supported by his opponent that Manchin says would take away health care from people with pre-existing conditions.

"He is just dead wrong, and that ain't gonna happen," says Manchin, who has often mentioned his knee replacement as a pre-existing condition during his re-election run.

The ad closes as he hoists his shotgun and takes aim at a paper copy of the lawsuit. No mention of Russia. No talk of a constitutional crisis. No Trump.

After two midterm cycles where they couldn't find their footing or a good message on the Affordable Care Act, Democrats are no longer running scared on Obamacare.

Instead, they are making it part of their identity. Democrats are on the attack, aiming to rebrand the law and their party by making personal and emotional pleas.

While the national story often focuses on Russia, Trump's latest tweet, abuse of power, the disarray in the White House and the constant question about what the Democratic Party stands for, Democrats have opted to largely skip the national topics, focusing instead on the pocketbook issue of health care.

In 2010, Democrats were skipping town halls to avoid voters' rage over impending changes to health care. Now, in ad after ad, they are all about health care.

The stories

North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp mentions her own struggle with breast cancer as she narrates the story of a woman named Denise Sandvick, who has a heart condition. Looking directly into the camera, Sandvick calls out Heitkamp's opponent, Kevin Cramer, for voting "to let insurance companies go back to denying coverage for pre-existing conditions."

"I know Heidi would never do that," she adds.

Physician Rob Davidson, a Michigan Democrat running against Rep. Bill Huizenga, clad in a white doctor's coat says the health care system is "completely broken" and he can fix it.

Clarke Tucker, running in for the House in Arkansas, closes a biographical ad with a mention of beating cancer and becoming "one of the million Arkansans with a pre-existing condition."

A few others running with ads featuring health care as a central theme: Jacky Rosen, running for Senate in Nevada, Amy McGrath running in Kentucky's 6th Congressional District, Kyrsten Sinema running for Senate in Arizona, Haley Stevens running in Michigan's 11th Congressional District.

Overall, according to political advertising tracker CMAG, Democratic spending on health care ads in Senate races is $40.8 million and $38.3 million in House races through September 4, outpacing ad spending on other issues by millions of dollars.

And witness Barack Obama, often derided by progressives as not going far enough on health care, embracing Medicare-for-all as one of Democrats' "good new ideas" during his return to the campaign trail. For years, Obamacare has been an electoral burden for Democrats, leading to massive setbacks among voters. Now, Obama, could be poised to take a delayed victory lap over his signature issue.

What changed?

What's so different now? Polls. A recent CNN poll shows that health care is the top issue voters will consider when voting this November. (The economy is a close second.)

A Kaiser Health poll from July shows that 48% of the public have a favorable view of the Affordable Care Act and 40% holding an unfavorable view. The favorable attitude towards the ACA rises to 51% among independent voters.

Now, Democrats are helped by the fact that people are actually benefiting from the law and it's not just a messy hypothetical. Federal data show more Obamacare recipients sticking with their plans. While the actions of Republicans to tear at the fabric of the measure's protections may feel like worlds away in political terms, Democrats are seeking ways to remind voters of the attempts to overturn the law and the consequences at stake.

"The debate over the ACA last year accomplished several things. It helps the benefit of Obamacare crystallize in the minds of voters," said Andrew Bates, the communications director for American Bridge's House campaign effort. "It defined the GOP as the party that was willing to cost millions of people health care ... all to cut taxes for the rich. That made a lasting impact."

Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist, sees a different political landscape, one dominated by everything Trump.

"It's incredibly naive for anyone to think they can make nuanced policy arguments in the current political environment," he said. "The decibel level of the national debate that is largely driven by President Trump completely drowns out any policy messaging campaign this cycle."

In the current climate, it's hard to argue that a policy debate has a "lasting impact," but in ads and messaging, Democrats are reminding voters where GOP candidates stood on the ACA repeal. It's a reversal of 2010, when GOP candidates were unified in their message, and Democrats struggled. Democrats lost the House in 2010 because of Obamacare, and in 2018, they could win because of it.

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