GOP Senate candidates turn to their families to deflect Democratic attacks on health care

Over the past month, Georgia Sen. David Perdue’s sister, Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner’s mother and Michigan Senate Republican candidate John James’ wife and son were featured in campaign ads, defending their loved ones amid attacks for opposing the Affordable Care Act, which created insurance protections for those with pre-existing conditions.

With his hand on his mother’s, Gardner says in an ad released this week: “I will never forget the day, the time, the place, where I was, when I found out that my mom had cancer, or how grateful I was when she beat it.” His mom then says that her son introduced a bill to “forever” guarantee those protections.

“No matter what happens to Obamacare,” adds Gardner.

But during a deadly pandemic that has cost nearly 200,000 American lives, with millions unemployed and many losing their insurance, Republicans are trying to prevent the politics of health care from working against them. They are espousing a softer message, glossing over their past support for dismantling the law both in Congress and the courts, oftentimes ignoring their own records on the issue.

The ads are a clear signal that the politics of the ACA have flipped since 2010 and 2014, when Republicans took the House and Senate pledging to overturn it. Republicans failed to repeal or replace Obamacare in 2017, and the Democrats took the House in 2018 primarily on promises to protect it. Democratic party leaders believe that replicating that health care message will help them take back the Senate and White House in November.

“We’ve seen this storyline before from the Republicans; they talk about protecting folks yet they offer no plan to do it,” said Sen. Gary Peters, a Democrat from Michigan fending off a challenge from James. “It’s just shallow rhetoric.”

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Republicans in key races throughout the country have used family members in ads as character witnesses. This week, New Mexico Republican Senate candidate Mark Ronchetti released an ad with his daughter Ava, who says she has a pre-existing condition, adding, “health care is personal to us.” Republicans in House races have also embraced the tactic; Virginia candidate Nick Freitas prominently featured his mother in an ad, and Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon showed a photo of his deceased sister in another.

These Republicans are following in the footsteps of Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley and Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who defeated Democratic senators in 2018 after publicly discussing their family’s health care issues.

In 2018, Hawley said in an ad that his son has “a rare chronic disease,” and supported forcing insurance companies to cover all pre-existing conditions, even as he took part in a lawsuit that would effectively overturn those protections.

In an interview this week, Hawley told CNN it was a “tough decision” to tell his son’s story and one that “we sat on for a long time.” Ultimately, Hawley said, they made the decision to move ahead to “give voters a perspective on my own priorities” that he would seek to protect such patients “apart from Obamacare.”

Many voters, he said, saw the ad and believed his support for covering individuals with such conditions “is not just rhetoric.”

“I think in my case, that made a big difference,” Hawley said.

Hawley and Scott also have something else in common with some GOP Senate candidates in 2020: The political consulting firm OnMessage Inc., whose services have been rendered by the Gardner and James campaigns, according to FEC filings. A strategist for the company did not respond to requests for comment.

In the James campaign ad that aired last week, the Republican candidate appeared with his wife, Liz, who defended her husband while noting their son has asthma. She also denounced a digital ad run by Senate Majority PAC, a liberal super PAC, which showed a young girl using her inhaler and argued that James “won’t protect” people with pre-existing conditions.

“I can assure you John will always protect everyone with pre-existing conditions,” said Liz James in the ad. “And Senator Peters, please leave children like mine out of your campaign.”

Health experts and fact checkers have said that Republicans have overstated their campaign trail claims to protect those pre-existing conditions. In August, Perdue said in an ad, “Health insurance should always cover pre-existing conditions. For anyone. Period.” PolitiFact said the ad was false, since he not only opposed the ACA, but the bill his campaign used in his defense would not provide such expansive protections.

Perdue spokeswoman Casey Black took issue with PolitiFact’s assessment, arguing it “cherry-picked select information to draw a misleading conclusion.”

Black added: “Senator Perdue supports coverage for those with pre-existing conditions no matter what, period, and anyone who suggests otherwise is knowingly lying.”

For the past decade, Republicans have vowed to offer a plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, but have failed to coalesce around one. President Donald Trump has not delivered his own replacement despite promising for years that he would.

When Democrats pushed through the health care law along party lines in 2010, it drew scorn from many voters — and many in their own party distanced themselves from the legislation. But the bill cut the number of uninsured by about 18 million people, and parts of the ACA are now overwhelmingly popular. This summer, two conservative states, Oklahoma and Missouri, voted for ballot measures to expand Medicaid, a key ACA provision, joining 37 other states.
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Republican candidates have had to contort themselves in 2020 in order to oppose Obamacare while supporting parts of it. In June, the Trump administration asked the Supreme Court to invalidate the ACA. But last week, Trump falsely attacked his Democratic opponent, Vice President Joe Biden, saying he “will destroy your protections for pre-existing conditions.”

Democrats have spent millions this election cycle attacking Republican Senate candidates like Perdue, James and Gardner on health care, charging that they would deny coverage for those with pre-existing conditions.

To insulate themselves from the attacks, some Republicans have taken matters into their own hands.

In August, Gardner introduced a bill called the Pre-Existing Conditions Protection Act, which is less than two hundred words and did not receive any consideration in the Senate. He touted it in his campaign ad this week.

Yet it has a major flaw in its design, according to Larry Levitt, the executive vice president for health policy at the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.

“Senator Gardner’s bill includes a number of the Affordable Care Act’s consumer protections, but one big one it leaves out is the requirement that insurers guarantee coverage to anyone, including people with pre-existing conditions,” Levitt told CNN. “Without that requirement, insurers could simply turn down people with pre-existing conditions who apply, which they commonly did in the individual insurance market before the ACA went into effect.”

He also noted that the bill does not include a “mechanism” like the ACA’s income-based premium subsidies to incentivize healthy people to sign up for insurance, which helps balance the risk pool and prevent a spiral of premium increases for those with pre-existing conditions.

“Pre-existing condition protections are now like motherhood and apple pie, but saying you’re for them is different from having a plan to actually make them a reality,” said Levitt. “It’s hard to do and involves trade-offs. People may forget all the political pain Democrats suffered because premiums went up and non-compliant plans got cancelled when the ACA’s protections went into effect.”

In response, Meghan Graf, a Gardner campaign spokeswoman, told CNN: “Senator Gardner wrote the bill to guarantee coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, regardless of what happens to Obamacare.”

Health care is also a top issue in the hotly contested US Senate race in North Carolina. Democrat Cal Cunningham has attacked GOP Sen. Thom Tillis on it for months.

“Quality health care is a right,” said Cunningham in one ad in February. “Thom Tillis doesn’t get that.”

But Tillis, who ran on promises to repeal the law in 2014, is touting his support for protecting people with pre-existing conditions, telling CNN on Thursday, “there’s nobody in the Senate who would vote to strip” them.

Tillis said the Democratic attacks are “a ploy in creating fear.”