Democrats are seeking to co-opt President Trump’s message on pharmaceuticals against him, and capitalize on voter anger at drug companies in the midterm elections this November.
They see attacking high drug prices as a populist message, and one that Trump himself showed can work in his campaign in 2016.
Polls show the public strongly backs action to lower drug prices. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll last week found that 52 percent of the public said legislation to bring down the price of drugs should be a “top priority.”
“There are few, if any, more essential issues to people’s pocketbooks than prescription drug costs,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist.
Some Democrats facing tough campaigns in red states are already pushing the issue.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) has long been highlighting high drug prices and issuing reports from her congressional office.
“I don’t care what the national Democratic Party message is,” McCaskill said in an interview with MSNBC on Sunday. “I care about the fact that pharmaceutical companies have unbridled greed, that [they] are totally ripping off Missourians in terms of drug prices.”
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), also up for reelection in a state Trump won in 2016, made one of her first two ads of the campaign about drug prices last month.
“I’m Tammy Baldwin and I’m fighting against drug companies that jack up their prices,” she says in the spot.
Democrats say Trump’s own 2016 campaign, where he bashed pharmaceutical companies for their prices, showed the appeal of the message.
Strategists said they expect Democratic House candidates to tout the issue as well, and that those challenging longtime Republican incumbents could do especially well with the argument.
Democratic leadership in Washington is encouraging the push. Leaders highlighted fighting drug prices as part of Democrats’ “Better Deal” agenda unveiled last year, which was seen as an effort to reclaim a populist mantle from Trump ahead of the midterm elections.
The Better Deal plan lays out specific policy proposals, including creating a new agency that could fine “price gouging” drug companies, allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, and require drug companies to submit justifications to the government for significant price increases.
Fueling the push on drug prices, a new group, called Patients for Affordable Drugs NOW, is planning to spend seven figures to help candidates who support lowering drug prices in the midterms, though the group says it could also support some Republicans if they are on the right side of the issue.
The group hopes it can help counteract some of the millions spent by pharmaceutical companies on elections.
The Kaiser Family Foundation poll this week found that 80 percent of the public thinks prescription drug prices are “unreasonable” and that 72 percent think drug companies have too much influence in Washington, more than the 52 percent who said so for the NRA.
Ben Wakana, president of Patients for Affordable Drugs NOW, said poll numbers like that “should terrify any politician that has done pharma’s bidding over their congressional career.”
“It is a pocketbook issue,” he added. “At the end of the day everyone gets sick.”
Tom Steyer, a major Democratic donor, has also branched out of his core area of environmental advocacy to focus on drug prices.
He backed a successful push last year to enact a drug pricing transparency law in California.
“Drug companies boost their profits by gouging patients, increasing costs for life-saving drugs like EpiPens without explanation or regard to those who need these drugs to survive,” Steyer wrote in a Medium post in September.
Trump has kept up his rhetorical attacks on drug companies, famously saying they are “getting away with murder,” but advocates say he has not backed up those words with actions proportionate to the problem.
In his budget last month, Trump proposed a range of relatively modest steps, such as capping out-of-pocket drug costs for Medicare enrollees and allowing up to five states to join together to negotiate drug prices in Medicaid.
But many of the ideas did not directly target pharmaceutical companies.
Ferguson, the Democratic strategist, said drug prices are an indication to voters of “how rigged Washington is.”
“The fact that Republicans have been on the wrong side of reducing prescription drug costs is a tremendous vulnerability,” he said.