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Red-State Democrats Zero In on Opioid Epidemic

Issue could buoy vulnerable incumbents in West Virginia, Missouri

Sens. Claire McCaskill and Joe Manchin III are two vulnerable Democrats looking to highlight their work on opioids. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)
Sens. Claire McCaskill and Joe Manchin III are two vulnerable Democrats looking to highlight their work on opioids. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

Vulnerable red-state Democrats are highlighting their work to address the opioid crisis in an effort to hold on to their congressional seats, even as it remains unclear whether the Senate will take key action before the midterm elections.

While the opioid epidemic is a priority for much of Congress, candidates in especially hard-hit states, such as West Virginia, have made it a core issue in their re-election bids.

An ad by the Democratic Senate Majority PAC touts Sen. Joe Manchin III’s efforts in passing legislation as part of the fiscal 2018 omnibus package that would allow doctors to more easily find out if a patient has a history of substance abuse. Manchin, who faces a tough race against Republican Patrick Morrisey, is one of 10 Senate Democrats running in states won by Donald Trump in 2016.

Morrisey, the West Virginia attorney general, has campaigned on his efforts to curb the opioid epidemic, such as suing pharmaceutical distributor McKesson.

Manchin is among the candidates most likely to benefit from making opioids a campaign issue, said Andrew Kessler, founder of Slingshot Solutions, which specializes in behavioral health policy consulting. Both Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee also stand out as leaders in taking on opioids, Kessler said.

The Senate returns from a brief recess this week to a busy fall schedule that includes government funding legislation and a Supreme Court nomination, leaving little wiggle room to pass an opioids package before Nov. 6.

Voting on opioids prior to Election Day would benefit Democrats, said Andrea Harris, senior vice president of the Height Capital Markets health care team. The former Hill staffer and ex-Obama administration appointee noted Republicans may not want to give the opposing party a win before the elections. She added Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may be skeptical about having anything related to health care on the Senate floor that either party could use as a vehicle for other health-related legislation.

Watch: Congress’ Proposals on Opioids Aren’t Keeping Up with Epidemic

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Fighting on the airwaves

For Democrats, who are in a position to topple the GOP majority in the House, their campaign messaging is focused on criticizing Republicans for not doing enough to fund opioid-fighting efforts.

“Time and again, Republican lawmakers say they will help those impacted by this crisis, only to turn around and refuse to expand Medicaid or propose cuts to this vital source of treatment funding,” said Sabrina Singh, deputy communications director for the Democratic National Committee.

Republicans, meanwhile, can point to more than 50 bills passed by the House aimed at improving awareness for at-risk patients and increasing access to treatment, said Jesse Hunt, national press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

During a campaign event last week, Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana stated he plans to continue bipartisan work on passing his bill that gives students pursuing fields related to substance use disorders some loan forgiveness if they commit to working in an area with elevated overdose rates for at least six years.

[Number of Pregnant Women Abusing Opioids Skyrockets]

In July, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri released an ad touting her work in taking on pharmaceutical companies, including those that may have played a role in the opioid crisis. McCaskill also released a report last month that examined opioid distributors and manufacturers in her home state, as well as the volume of opioids shipped into it.

McCaskill’s opponent, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, is also campaigning on what he’s done to investigate opioid manufacturers. His office filed suit against Purdue Pharma, Endo Health Solutions and Janssen Pharmaceuticals last year, arguing that the companies deliberately misrepresented the addictiveness of opioids.

Donnelly and McCaskill are locked in Senate races that are rated as toss-ups by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.

In the Wisconsin Senate race, rated by Gonzales as leaning Democratic, incumbent Sen. Tammy Baldwin opened up about her mother’s drug problem in a May ad. The Democrat talks of a bipartisan approach to solve the problem.

[For Some in Congress, the Opioid Crisis Is Personal]

“I have worked with Republicans and Democrats to get the funding Wisconsin needs, so people have somewhere to turn for help,” she said in the ad. “It’s just a start.”

But Kevin Nicholson, a Republican businessman and veteran who is running against Baldwin, wants more.

“Solving the opioid epidemic will take a multi-pronged approach. Wisconsin needs a senator who’s willing to provide solutions that prevent drug dependency from the start,” Nicholson tweeted last month.

What’s next

Republicans may be less likely to lose ground at the polls by not sending opioid legislation to Trump’s desk this fall, strategists say. They can point to a House-passed bill that has been awaiting Senate action since June and could be sent to a conference committee.

“If you’re a House member and you voted for it, you can say you’ve voted for it,” said Christopher Nicholas, a GOP political consultant and president of Eagle Consulting Group. “If you’re a senator who is going to support it and it doesn’t come up, you can still say I support the bill, even though it hasn’t come to a floor vote yet.”

A senator could also put out a memo with other things he or she has done to address the issue even if a vote on opioids legislation doesn’t happen before the elections, Nicholas said.

“It would be hard for your opponent to take a swipe at you,” he said.

[Congress’ Focus on Opioids Misses Larger Crisis]

Former NRCC Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon has spearheaded much of the House effort as the leader of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has spotlighted many personal stories from members and constituents about the impact of opioids. The party has also launched to highlight Republican efforts.

The Senate returns Wednesday. A GOP leadership aide has said four committees are working to craft an opioids package that the Senate can vote on, resolve differences with the House and send to Trump. Timing could be key.

“If they wait until late October [for opioids] and then only have part of the lame-duck session to hammer out the conference, that’s not going to help anybody,” said Kessler with Slingshot Solutions.

Little variation by party

Advocacy groups such as the American Action Network demand action.

The center-right group spent more than $5 million earlier this year on ads encouraging the House to pay attention to opioid abuse. It targeted a bipartisan group of more than 25 districts, including those of vulnerable GOP Reps. Leonard Lance of New Jersey, Peter Roskam of Illinois and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania.

Combating the opioid epidemic is a little like backing education or parks, said Jason Husser, who conducts an associate professor of political science and policy studies at Elon University and a pollster. Essentially, no one opposes it.

“One thing that stood out to me is just how little variation there is … across party lines. Dealing with this issue has support from both parties,” said Husser, who conducted an Elon Poll on attitudes toward the epidemic among likely voters in North Carolina last year.

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