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Democrats Bet Health Care Will Deliver 2020 Victories

Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, who is running the House Democrats' 2020 campaign operation, tell NPR: "There couldn't be a clearer differentiation between what we are fighting for and what they are fighting against."
Susan Walsh
Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, who is running the House Democrats' 2020 campaign operation, tell NPR: "There couldn't be a clearer differentiation between what we are fighting for and what they are fighting against."

A coalition of Democratic committees representing governors, attorneys general, senators and members of Congress released a strategy memo Tuesday outlining that their collective strategy for the 2020 elections is to focus on health care.

"Democrats are betting that Americans will vote for the party of health care over the party of drinking bleach," Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., told NPR in an interview, referring to President Trump's suggestion in April that doctors look into injecting disinfectants into COVID-19 patients.

Bustos is running the House Democrats' campaign operation this year.

"The COVID-19 epidemic underscores the urgency of our efforts to protect Americans' access to affordable health care," the memo states.

It is co-authored by Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez; Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chair Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev.; Democratic Governors Association Chair Gov. Phil Murphy, D-N.J.; Democratic Attorneys General Association Co-Chairs Maura Healey and Ellen Rosenblum; and Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee Chair Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who is the majority leader of the New York Senate.

The issue has historically been a winner for the Democratic Party — most recently in the 2018 midterms that delivered a House majority — so the continued focus is no political surprise, particularly as the Trump administration continues its legal effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Read the full memo here.

"Republicans at all levels own this lawsuit's attacks on Americans' health care and they will be held responsible for their party-wide obsession with throwing our health care system into chaos and stripping health care from 20 million Americans during a global pandemic," the memo states. The Supreme Court is expecting to hear the ACA challenge this fall.

Democrats' internal polling, as well as public polling, regularly lists health care as a top issue for voters. Bustos said that includes congressional districts won by Donald Trump in 2016.

On the congressional level, Democrats intend to campaign against Republicans who voted in favor of repealing the ACA. On the gubernatorial and state legislative level, Democrats say they will focus on GOP opposition to Medicaid expansion.

Bustos says Democrats will campaign in favor of making health care more accessible and affordable and lowering the cost of prescription drugs. "There couldn't be a clearer differentiation between what we are fighting for and what they are fighting against," she said.

The memo sidesteps the more divisive debate inside the Democratic Party over what the future of health care should look like — a debate that defined the Democratic presidential contest. On one end was the progressive wing led by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., arguing for a government-run "Medicare for All" system, and on the other the centrist wing led by former Vice President and presumptive nominee Joe Biden to protect and expand the ACA.

Bustos said that debate will continue but noted that defending the health care law delivered victory in 2018. "We all come from different camps. We all come from different parts of the country," she said. "But we know that we have been successful — again, flipping 40 seats in 2018 — by talking about expanding the Affordable Care Act and making sure we're fighting for people with preexisting conditions."

Democrats are also expected to highlight some of the president's more provocative statements during the pandemic in their campaigns.

"They are led by President Trump who just this week talked about taking hydroxychloroquine when the medical evidence is clear that that is not what a person should be doing right now ... and he's advocating for that and bragging about that," she said. "That's the leader of their party, who talked about injecting bleach or Lysol. That is the leader of their party, and that's how they talk about health care."

Trump later said his comments about using disinfectant to kill the virus were sarcastic.

While Republicans broadly support repealing the ACA, the party has never coalesced around an alternative policy to cover the uninsured. Health care remains a priority for the president, who has promised to offer a "phenomenal" health plan during his reelection campaign that will remake the GOP as "the party of health care." It has not been released yet.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.