When Rep. Peter Roskam first became aware of how much his district was impacted by the opioids crisis, it began with the coroner’s office.
“It was my county coroner who first brought this to my attention a few years ago, and he was kind of a voice in the wilderness on this saying, ‘Hey, there’s kids in Naperville, Illinois who are dying of opioid overdose,’” said the Republican incumbent for Illinois’s 6th District.
To help address the problem on the federal level, Roskam recently shepherded through legislation as part of a giant opioids package that was sent to the president’s desk last week. One of Roskam’s provisions would require the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to identify high prescribers of opioids.
“People are very heartened when they learn that both political parties are coming together and working in a way that is transformational,” said Roskam, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee's Health Subcommittee.
Republicans have been touting this bipartisan accomplishment, even in the midst of a bruising fight over the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
But for members like Roskam who are locked in competitive races, could achieving this legislative goal help sway voters in November? Political experts doubt it, although they say voters would likely view the bill as a positive accomplishment.
Since both sides of the aisle want to tackle the crisis and it does not highlight stark differences between the parties, it’s a tough issue to campaign on, experts told National Journal, as it lacks the partisanship of health care policies like Obamacare.
Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the reason that the opioid crisis is not a top voting issue “has nothing to do with the seriousness of the problem.” There’s simply not a clear division between Republicans and Democrats on the issue, he said.
Even in hard-hit states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, opioids ranked as a low priority for voters when it came to issues that matter in the gubernatorial races. In June, Suffolk University Political Research Center polls asked likely voters what they deemed to be the most important issue when voting for governor. Just 6.4 percent of voters in Ohio and 4.6 percent of voters in Pennsylvania selected opioids.
Roskam’s opponent, Democratic contender and clean-energy entrepreneur Sean Casten, said the fact that the opioids problem polls low on the priority list for voters is concerning, noting that the people most impacted by the epidemic may be getting missed by pollsters.
“What’s frankly troubling to me as a first-time candidate is that when you go out and you poll people on, say, how important is this, it never comes up very high,” he said. “I think, I don’t know for certain, but I think that reflects not the fact that it’s not an issue, but that the people who this most affects don’t fall into that bucket of likely voters that pollsters talk to.”
Despite this, the opioids bill gives Republicans a legislative success that they can show to their voters as evidence they are accomplishing important work in Washington, Blendon said. “There’s a serious question for Republican voters, ‘What did this Congress ever do?’” he said. “They didn’t enact anything beyond a tax cut and they can’t even say they confirmed a popular Supreme Court justice.”
Shortly after Kavanaugh’s confirmation vote Saturday, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn conceded that the Kavanaugh debate distracted from this accomplishment.
“The nation’s been riveted on this and the controversy associated with it, so that’s overpowered any other news that might otherwise get through,” he said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan touted the opioid bill as “the most significant congressional effort in history to fight a single drug crisis” during a speech at the National Press Club on Monday, but claimed that it, along with other bipartisan work, was being overlooked.
“Most of what we do is actually bipartisan, but there are those flare-ups on the big issues that we just don’t agree on like health care or taxes or what happened in the Senate with the Supreme Court that really flare up, but underneath those polarizing moments is a lot of bipartisan production,” he told reporters.
Roskam’s bipartisan work on opioids has not stopped Casten from criticizing his handling of the issue. The Democratic candidate said although he was glad addressing the opioids crisis has become a concern for both parties, Roskam’s track record on health care is “horrible” overall.
“You have a huge number of people who need rehabilitation and treatment for opioids who are unfortunately falling into the Medicaid system or in some cases Medicare,” said Casten, who knocked Roskam as often being on the “wrong side” of health care issues. “He’s been very consistently a voice of cutting Medicare benefits, cutting Medicaid benefits, block-grants to states.”
For Casten, addressing the opioids crisis means protecting, defending, and expanding the Affordable Care Act to ensure that people have access to health care before a problem becomes more serious.
But being an incumbent who has done work on the opioids issue in Congress could give Roskam an edge that his challenger lacks. Republican political consultant Christopher Nicholas said he would advise a client who has worked on this issue to run an ad showcasing a constituent who has been helped by the lawmaker’s policies.
“Those cut through the clutter, they humanize the politicians,” said Nicholas. “It’s an advantage quite frankly that incumbents have over challengers. There’s always a lot of anti-incumbent feelings sometimes. It’s the rare challenger who can run a constituent-service ad because they haven’t been in the business and helping constituents because they’re not in office.”
This summer, the conservative American Action Network ran an ad in multiple districts featuring a person recovering from a substance-use disorder urging Congress to “keep fighting against opioid addiction.” She thanked Roskam—and other lawmakers in separate spots—for his work.
“The opioid epidemic deserves more attention and that’s why Congress is working to combat this crisis,” said Lily Stroup in the ad. “I’m really grateful Congressman Roskam is helping pass bipartisan solutions to save lives.”