In Trump midterms, one GOP congressman bets re-election on healthcare
BURR RIDGE, ILL.—Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), in the final sprint for his congressional life, wants to talk about Medicare red tape.
The message is a big deal in his hospital-dominated district that headquarters the state's largest system, Advocate Health Care. His health subcommittee chairmanship for the powerful House Ways and Means Committee positions him to push measures that resonate when hospitals attribute 25% of their spending, or about $200 billion per year, to paperwork.
But while policy specifics may matter for his committee work and for the business of healthcare, analysts are skeptical they can prevail over the "Trump effect"—widespread rejection of the president by moderate suburban Republicans, which makes elections in places like the Illinois 6th District a national more than a local referendum.
Roskam now lags in the polls behind his Democratic challenger Sean Casten, a clean energy entrepreneur who has harnessed local opposition to President Donald Trump to pull ahead of a six-term congressman of a district that was designed as a GOP stronghold.
He's also struggling to make another national healthcare message local.
The term "pre-existing conditions" is headlining the cycle. The tag line has become particularly effective in light of the GOP state attorneys general lawsuit to strike down the Affordable Care Act. The Trump administration sided with the lawsuit, specifically asking the courts to overturn the provisions around community rating and other cover requirements that prohibit insurers from charging more for people with expensive, pre-existing conditions.
Roskam voted with most of his party for the GOP effort to repeal and replace the ACA, and Casten has been pounding him for it.
But on a rainy Friday in early October, as he toggled between campaign events and representational duties that involved a deep dive into CMS pay rules for disabled adults in the community, Roskam stuck with his policy line. He said this still matters in what he described as his "solution-oriented" district.
"My observation is that if the ACA were doing what it's purported to do, the district wouldn't be restless and they'd be quick to turn the page," Roskam said. "But they are restless and there is a sense of vulnerability that's out there and it's largely financial."
Then he pivoted to what he has been working on as a congressman: the Medicare Red Tape Relief project that culminated in a report late this summer, which he believes is more relevant for bringing costs down.
"The country feels stuck in a debate [over Obamacare] and it's ready to get out of the ditch of the debate," Roskam said. "It's well litigated where both sides are on the ACA. And these continuous declarations—most people don't find a level of connection. Which is why the red-tape relief effort resonates. 'Yes, I get that, my doctor is looking at a screen half the time he's with me. That's not the way it used to be.'"
But that's not the focus in this race. After millions of dollars in advertising from both sides, Roskam is trailing by five points in the latest FiveThirtyEight poll. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race as "lean Democratic" as Casten pummels Roskam's record of voting 94% of the time for Trump's agenda.
The flip is emblematic of what's happening in moderate suburbs that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, said David Wasserman, House editor of Cook Political Report. That's when Roskam cruised to a double-digit victory even though Clinton beat Trump by seven points in his district.
Casten, whose core issue is climate change, wasn't necessarily the strongest Democratic candidate for the district, Wasserman added. He wasn't the favorite in his primary and even Democratic strategists complain about his bombastic style. But none of this may matter.
"Roskam has failed to make the race a referendum on Casten, and it's become about Trump and Roskam," Wasserman said.
In Roskam's case, there are also state-based headwinds: a deeply unpopular GOP governor who is motivating Democratic voters in the state, and a GOP president who is unpopular in a prosperous GOP district.
"If Peter wins, it's because people are willing to look at him as someone who is independent of Trump and has been a good representative of the district," a longtime GOP Illinois strategist said.
At a Casten sit-down with local members of the Illinois Alliance for Retired Americans as the group endorsed him, the dissatisfaction with healthcare played out in condemnations of Roskam's 2017 vote to repeal the ACA. They talked about denials of care by insurers through pre-authorizations they didn't understand, their fears about the future of coverage for pre-existing conditions, and Medicare's solvency.
Kim Johnson, a retired state worker who is taking care of two of her grandchildren, said that one granddaughter was born with a heart condition and blasted Roskam for his 2017 vote saying that if he "had his way, she'll have no insurance."
But the status quo is also not enough, Johnson added, noting that she wants to see "universal healthcare."
"I just want to see something," she said. "I want to see something improve. We are a much better country than what our benefits are."
Casten reiterated his support for the ACA and said he wants to look at a public option through an expansion of Medicare or Medicaid or both.
But he has steered clear of the more progressive Democratic positions. He criticized the Medicare for All proposal of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as "irresponsible" and said it made him nervous. At the table of retirees Casten also defended the for-profit nature of the U.S. system, which he said drives the right incentives for efficiency.
He has also drawn a hard line about what he thinks about Republicans, and about working with them. "On almost everything we are arguing about, there are no areas for compromise," specifically on the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, climate change and voting rights, Casten told a group of nursing home residents in one event.
Roskam, recently ranked as the 25th most bipartisan House member out of 435 lawmakers, is banking on his district rejecting that approach. Issues like Medicare fraud and Medicare solvency matter, he said, but big policy pushes need buy-in from both Democrats and Republicans and work needs to be incremental.
Roskam has blasted Casten's campaign speech—and his active Twitter feed—as Trump-like. But in the last stretch of the race, the rhetoric has intensified, thanks to the millions of dollars raised for ads that are barraging the district and even its surrounding counties. Campaign signs blanket lawns and the roads connecting this leafy, prosperous district.
James, a nursing home resident who had attended Casten's event there and who declined to give his last name, said that what he will be watching for this election is what it will say about voters' views of Trump.
"Are people catching on with what Trump is doing?" James said. "Everybody's got a right to vote—that's a good thing and a bad thing. Hopefully people will catch on to what's going on."
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