In the final weeks of the 2018 midterm campaign, President Donald Trump has made a bold bet that he can portray the Republican Party as the one committed to protecting people with pre-existing conditions and the Democrats as opposed.
It is a politically audacious effort, one that reflects a larger attempt by GOP lawmakers to soften their approach to the Affordable Care Act, which virtually all of them have either pledged or voted to repeal. And it could very well work, save one stubborn point: it’s not rooted in reality.
Trump’s tweet on Wednesday morning—in which he said “Republicans will totally protect people with Pre-Existing Conditions, Democrats will not! Vote Republican”—glossed over the fact that his own administration is currently supportive of a lawsuit that would undo Obamacare’s protections for pre-existing conditions. Shortly after that tweet was sent, an official with the Department of Justice confirmed to The Daily Beast that the attorney general had not changed his decision to not defend Obamacare against the Texas lawsuit seeking its demise.
It’s not just Trump who is trying to associate himself with a policy outcome that he is legally working against. In fact, no Republican candidates have explicitly dropped their support for that same lawsuit or disavowed it either. The closest one comes is Florida’s Republican Governor Rick Scott, whose spokesperson said he had no input in the state attorney general’s decision to join the suit.
The mixed messaging has created enormous complications for Republicans who are getting pummeled on the topic as the midterms near. According to a recent study conducted by the Wesleyan Media Project, between September 18 and October 15, 45.9 percent of ads in federal races mentioned health care, with 54.5 percent being in pro-Democratic ads. In 2010, following the passage of ACA, health care appeared in just 8.7 percent of Democratic ads, according to the study.
“It shows how far we’ve come on the issue of healthcare and how decisive the Democratic advantage is,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) told The Daily Beast in an interview. “I’ve never seen such message discipline among Democrats. It augurs well for the party going forward that although everybody is saying different things in different ways, we’re striking many of the same chords from red and blue states and everywhere in between.”
Democratic Party campaign officials told The Daily Beast that they view the GOP’s latest posturing on pre-existing conditions as affirmation of that investment. And according to operatives working on both House and Senate races, they’ve seen no indication that the recent obfuscating on pre-existing conditions is having much of an effect on the polls.
"You can’t spend eight years saying the sky is blue and then try to convince people it’s green," said Jared Leopold, communications director of the Democratic Governors Association.
But Republicans are certainly trying. Trump is slated to make a health care-related speech at the Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday. Two months ago, meanwhile, 10 Senate Republicans including Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) introduced legislation intended to protect individuals with pre-existing conditions—legislation that healthcare advocates contended would not keep insurance companies from outright prohibiting coverage exclusions.
Democrats had also begun to recently fear that health care was being drowned out by politically glitzier items such as immigration and the fallout over Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination. On Tuesday, one of the party’s main super PACs, Priorities USA launched a national ad buy to highlight comments made by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)—in which he hinted at forthcoming efforts to reform Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security—as a means of reorienting the conversation.
The conversation has proved politically fruitful. Throughout 2017 and into the current campaign season, Democrats have held on to a clear and consistent lead on questions of which party would be best to handle the issue of healthcare. This was present in multiple polls taken after a contentious Kavanaugh battle, including a finding from CBS News that showed those who ranked health care as very important supported Democrats over Republicans by a 57 percent to 35 percent margin. In Senate races, which are taking place on decidedly redder more Trump-friendly terrain, the focus has kept some Democrats within striking distance of Republicans, even after there was an enthusiasm jump for GOP voters following the confirmation hearings.
“Look, Republicans are squirming about their healthcare records and you can smell the panicked sweat of GOP Senate candidates who are being confronted about their records of gutting coverage for preexisting conditions through the television,” David Bergstein, national press secretary for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee told The Daily Beast. “Republican Senate candidates have a record that they can’t defend.”
The problem is particularly pronounced for two Republican Senate candidates who also serve as the Attorneys General for their states. Josh Hawley, the attorney general of Missouri who is challenging incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) in an extremely close race and Patrick Morrisey, the attorney general of West Virginia who has trailed his opponent Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), both have their names signed to the Texas suit.
Yet Hawley released an ad in late September in which—noting that his son has a rare chronic disease—he said he supports “forcing insurance companies to cover all pre-existing conditions.” Hawley has said he has no regrets about signing onto the lawsuit and that pre-existing conditions can be protected apart from the ACA. Morrisey has similarly stated his support for protecting people with pre-existing conditions, even as he’s been heavily targeted for his support of the suit, most notably in an ad from Manchin in which he literally shoots a mock version of it.
The Democratic party’s top surrogates have also consistently brought attention to this artful dance from Republican candidates, arguing at campaign events that the newfound love for pre-existing conditions is a farce. And, with just days to go before the election, they don’t appear to be sweating the new tune from Republicans.
“Donald Trump is desperate to whitewash the GOP's decades of votes to gut protections for pre-existing conditions,” said Jesse Ferguson, who served as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s independent expenditure director in the last cycle. “But no amount of soap and water will remove the tattoo on every Republican for voting to gut protections for people with asthma, diabetes, cancer and other pre-existing conditions.”