National News

What Do These Political Ads Have in Common? The Opioid Crisis.

Posted June 7, 2018 12:07 p.m. EDT
Updated June 7, 2018 12:12 p.m. EDT

The scenes in the political ads play out in almost the same order: A heartbreaking story about someone who can’t seem to stop taking drugs. A grim statistic about opioids. And then a somber pitch from a candidate promising solutions.

More and more, politicians in competitive races are using emotional pleas about opioid abuse to woo voters. In states like Wisconsin, where hundreds of people are dying of opioid overdoses every year, candidates are talking about drugs in stump speeches, on Facebook and in ads.

The opioid fight has become a shared talking point for Democrats and Republicans, who discuss the crisis using startlingly similar language and often vote together to pass bills.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump’s administration announced a series of public service announcements that aim to warn young adults about the dangers of opioid abuse. In one ad, a young woman says she intentionally crashed her car to get more opioids; in another, a man recounts breaking his arm to get another prescription. The videos all include the line, “Opioid dependence can happen after just five days.”

Historically, Republicans have taken a law enforcement-first approach to drug crises, while Democrats have focused on treatment and prevention. Some sharp partisan divisions still exist over the best approach to the opioid crisis, including on Trump’s call for the death penalty for drug dealers and a wall along the border with Mexico to keep drugs out of the country. And some Democrats have moved to spend more on treatment, including a bill in Congress that calls for spending $100 million on opioid resources each year.

But with overdoses ravaging Republican and Democratic strongholds alike, members of both parties have found broad areas of agreement, a rarity in today’s politics.

“This is really a unique issue where there’s tremendous amounts of overlap,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, a Brandeis University researcher who has advised members of both parties on opioid policy and is himself a physician who treats opioid addiction.

Here’s a look at how some candidates are talking about opioids:

— Illinois

The candidate: Brendan Kelly, Democratic nominee for Congress. Kelly, a county prosecutor, is seeking to unseat Rep. Mike Bost, a two-term Republican, in a Southern Illinois race that could help determine control of the House.

The ad: In an ad that runs for nearly two minutes, a mother recounts her daughter’s addiction to Vicodin and her death in 2012. “Giving her them pills when she first was prescribed all that was the loaded gun,” the mother says.

Opioids in the region: Between January and August of 2017, 36 people died of overdoses in St. Clair County, where Kelly is prosecutor.

The candidate’s record on opioids: Kelly is one of many city and county officials to sue drug companies that make opioids.

— Wisconsin

The candidate: Gov. Scott Walker, Republican. Walker, a two-term governor running for re-election, has cautioned Republicans not to underestimate Democrats in November. At one point, he said on Twitter that the state was “at risk of a #BlueWave.”

The ad: “Tyler was only 80 pounds,” the mother of a recovering addict says. “I had his funeral planned.”

Opioids in the region: Wisconsin had 865 fatal opioid overdoses in 2016 and had a death rate higher than the national average.

The candidate’s record on opioids: Last year, Walker called a special legislative session on opioids and signed bills providing more funding for treatment and law enforcement. Democrats have criticized Walker for accepting donations from people with ties to pharmaceutical companies.

— Wisconsin

The candidate: Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Democrat. Baldwin’s seat is one of 10 that Democrats are defending this year in states that Trump carried in 2016. Republicans are spending heavily to try to defeat her.

The ad: Baldwin describes coming home from school as a child to find her mother passed out. “My mother had a drug abuse problem,” Baldwin says in the ad. “I had to grow up fast. Very fast.”

Opioids in the region: Emergency room visits for opioid overdoses increased 109 percent between mid-2016 and mid-2017 in Wisconsin. “I felt strongly that I needed to add my story to help fight the stigma and to help let fellow Wisconsinites know that I’ve been there,” Baldwin said in an interview.

The candidate’s record on opioids: Baldwin helped bring federal funds to Wisconsin to fight opioids, but has also faced criticism for her response to a scandal at a Veterans Affairs hospital in her state, in which some patients were overprescribed opioids.

— West Virginia

The candidate: Don Blankenship, candidate for Senate. Blankenship, a businessman and convicted criminal, lost the Republican primary to Patrick Morrisey, West Virginia’s attorney general, but later said he would run as a third-party candidate. Both men are seeking to unseat Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, in November.

The ad: Blankenship uses clips from a CBS News report on Morrisey’s financial and business ties to the pharmaceutical industry. A narrator notes that Morrisey “is in charge of prosecuting these drug companies.”

Opioids in the region: In 2016, West Virginia had the highest drug overdose death rate in the country. A Fox News poll conducted in April found that Republican primary voters there rated the opioid crisis as the most important issue facing the country.

The candidate’s record on opioids: Morrisey has negotiated settlements with opioid distributors, including $20 million from Cardinal Health.