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Candidates Get Candid About Their Cancer Diagnoses in TV Ads

Democrats open up about personal medical struggles to talk about health care

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill is just the latest candidate to talk about her own cancer diagnosis in a campaign ad this year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill is just the latest candidate to talk about her own cancer diagnosis in a campaign ad this year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill got personal in a recent ad, talking about something that she’s never addressed in a political spot before: cancer — specifically, her own diagnosis.

“Two years ago, I beat breast cancer,” the two-term Democrat says to camera. “Like thousands of other women in Missouri, I don’t talk about it much.”

But McCaskill is hardly the only candidate this year opening up about her personal experience with cancer or serious illness.

For Democrats trying to make the midterms about health care, it’s a way to capitalize on the recent popularity of the 2010 health care law and its protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

Candidates have filmed ads this year in which they’re breastfeeding, sharing stories of sexual assault, opening up about post-traumatic stress disorder or recalling a scary diagnosis. They’re showing aspects of themselves that at one time might have been seen as politically disqualifying. And in doing so, they’re hoping that those experiences can be political strengths.

Opening up

When Arkansas Democrat Clarke Tucker first entered the race against Rep. French Hill last winter, national Democrats heralded him as a candidate who could put this Republican seat in play.

One reason? His personal medical story, combined with a legislative record of fighting to expand Medicaid in the state.

Tucker’s fight with cancer was a big part of his early message. He was diagnosed in August 2017, after Republicans had attempted to repeal the 2010 health care law. “That really brought it home for me,” he told Roll Call earlier this year, explaining why he decided to run for Congress.

His TV spots open with him walking through a hospital.

“When I was told I had cancer, my first thought was for my kids, who need their dad,” Tucker says, before touting his achievements to “protect health care and hospitals here at home.”

Illinois Democrat Kelly Mazeski ran in one of the earliest Democratic primaries. She made the story of her breast cancer diagnosis the opening scene of her TV ad. Shot in a medical office, it helped distinguish her from a crowded field, including other breast cancer survivors.

Mazeski is a scientist and local elected official, but it was her experience with cancer that became the most prominent part of her biography.

“Mazeski decided to run because Roskam helped pass the Republican repeal plan,” said ad maker Ian Russell, referring to GOP incumbent Peter Roskam. “It’s deeply personal to her. That makes very compelling storytelling.”

It wasn’t enough, though. Mazeski fell short in the Democratic primary, narrowly losing to a candidate who benefited from late outside spending. 

When Russell’s team first works with a client, they have long phone calls to go over the candidate’s biography. And these days they’re asking about medical history the candidate is willing to share.

The Wesleyan Media Project found that health care was the subject of 63 percent of pro-Democratic House ads aired this summer. That’s made personal stories a natural narrative to turn to.

“People are leading with it because it’s so key to why they’re running. You don’t have to coax it out of them,” Russell said.

Opening up about cancer in ads may also be a sign of the times — namely, that medical advances have made cancer much more survivable than it was 10 or 20 years ago — and therefore less of a political vulnerability.

North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000 when she was state attorney general and running for governor. She started chemotherapy less than three weeks before the election.

As The New York Times reported that fall, some North Dakotans worried that the grueling treatments would keep Heitkamp from being an effective governor if she were elected. Her opponent, Republican John Hoeven, told the Times that Heitkamp had a lead in the polls at that time because of the attention she received for announcing her diagnosis. She ultimately lost by 10 points. (Hoeven is now North Dakota’s senior senator.)

This year, Heitkamp has made breast cancer part of her campaign message as she seeks a second Senate term. She mentions it as her own pre-existing condition in a mid-August ad

ICYMI: ‘North Dakota Nice’ Takes a Backseat in Senate Race

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It’s not just their own stories candidates are sharing; it’s those of close family and friends, too.

Michigan Democrat Elissa Slotkin is running a minute-long TV ad talking about her mother, who died from ovarian cancer. She struggled to afford health care. Having breast cancer as a young woman meant she had a pre-existing condition.

Slotkin also ties her family story into a policy message, calling GOP Rep. Mike Bishop’s vote to repeal the 2010 health care law a “dereliction of duty” and a “fireable offense.”

Missouri Democrat Cort VanOstran made his mother’s battle with terminal cancer the theme of one of his TV ads over the summer.  The focus of an ad from Texas Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones is her mother’s battle with cancer and how Jones came home to care for her.  

That’s an effective strategy, Democratic strategists agree.

“Voters want to know who you are and who they are voting for,” strategist Jesse Ferguson said in an email, adding that people are looking for authentic voices. 

“For a lot of Democratic candidates who are making this pre-existing conditions issue front and center in the campaign, they’re doing it because they really believe it based on experiences they or their family have had,” he added.

“It’s not a talking point. It’s real life. And people need to know that.”

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