Drug Industry Spent Record $80M on Election
In its quest to prevent Democrats from grabbing control of Congress, the pharmaceutical industry raised "piles" of money, used seniors in
ad campaigns, hired lobbyists and public-relations experts, posted banner ads online and distributed free phone-calling cards, and, according to the Wall Street Journal, "they won." The $80 million campaign, the "costliest" corporate effort in U.S. political history, helped Republicans maintain "thin majorities" in the House and Senate, and "reduced the odds" that Congress next year will pass a Medicare prescription drug benefit that would eventually lead to pharmaceutical price controls. Six months ago, the prescription drug coverage issue threatened to "bury" many Republican candidates and give Democrats "crucial" congressional seats, but the drug industry made the issue "disappear." Exit polls suggested that voters' "once-fervent concern" about drug coverage dropped from the radar screen, falling below "world affairs" on a list of concerns. "[The drug industry's] advertising campaign was staggering in its cost but it did muddy the issue and, to a certain extent, neutralized it," Denise Mitchell, director of communications for the AFL-CIO, said. Democratic pollster Mark Mellman added, "The drug industry has done a good job of helping Republicans co-opt a great Democratic issue." In the 26 House races that the industry targeted with its ad blitz, only four industry-backed candidates suffered defeat. Senate races provided "mixed" results, with Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who was backed by the industry, holding on to his seat and Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), also favored by the industry, falling to "industry critic" Rep. Deborah Stabenow (D-Mich.). In the presidential contest, the results of drug makers' efforts to put Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) in the White House remain in doubt with the election too close to call, but election results showed that among voters ages 65 and older, Vice President Al Gore held only a "slight edge," winning 51% to 47% over Bush. During the campaign, drugmakers -- led by Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Pfizer Inc. and Johnson & Johnson -- "shelled out" twice what the tobacco industry spent in its $40 million 1998 effort to kill a proposed national settlement of state and federal lawsuits. The pharmaceutical industry purchased more than $50 million in television ads, and "millions more" in radio, print and
direct-mail ads, crafted by the drug-industry backed group Citizens for Better Medicare. Drugmakers also provided the
U.S. Chamber of Commerce with $10 million to run similar ads and made $19 million in direct donations, primarily to GOP candidates and the Republican Party.
While the Medicare prescription drug benefit issue "almost certainly" will resurface next year, pharmaceutical companies
-- hoping to ensure that private insurers, not the government, administer any Medicare drug benefit passed -- will still face a Congress controlled by Republicans, who back the former option. "There is a popular mandate to do something about drug coverage coming out of this election," Vin Weber, a former GOP congressman and drug industry adviser, said, adding, "What the industry was able to achieve was a level playing field. From a political perspective the industry has said, 'Let's proceed but don't try to stigmatize one industry.'" With the election creating a "delicate balance of power" in Congress, the future of the drug coverage issue remains unclear. Both sides may embrace a bipartisan compromise to fulfill "broad commitments" promised to voters to provide drug coverage. "The drug industry has spent enormous sums both directly and covertly on this election. Yet if there is one clear mandate coming out of the election, it's to have a prescription drug benefit for Medicare beneficiaries," AARP lobbyist John Rother concluded (Hamburger/McGinley, Wall Street Journal, 11/9).