WASHINGTON — A Republican political group is attempting to turn West Virginia’s race for Senate into a referendum over which candidate is more beholden to the pharmaceutical industry.

It is a bold strategy: Their own candidate, Republican nominee Patrick Morrisey, is a longtime pharmaceutical industry lobbyist.

Morrisey, the state’s attorney general, lobbied Capitol Hill in the early 2000s on behalf of drug makers including Celgene, Sanofi, and Novartis, according to a STAT review of lobbying disclosures. He has also lobbied on behalf of the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, the trade group representing the country’s major wholesalers. Those companies are now the subject of numerous lawsuits and investigations pertaining to their role in the opioid crisis.

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The candidate’s deep ties to Big Pharma, however, have not deterred the GOP from attacking Sen. Joe Manchin, the Democratic incumbent, over his own ties to the drug industry.

New ads and a website funded by a super PAC aligned with Sen. Mitch McConnell, the chamber’s majority leader, label Manchin as a staunch defender of the drug company Mylan, which infamously hiked the price of Epipen.

Manchin has accepted $289,300 for his campaigns from the company, whose CEO, Heather Bresch, is his daughter. The attacks are not new — in April, another Republican campaign group dispatched a man dressed as an Epipen to a Manchin photo op.

Democratic groups have responded in kind, focusing in particular on the drug distributors Morrisey and his wife have lobbied for. One recent Facebook ad reads: “Patrick Morrisey was a lobbyist for opioid companies, and as attorney general he went easy on opioid companies like Cardinal Health who paid his wife to be their lobbyist.”

A spokesman for the Manchin campaign said Mylan is a publicly traded company, while the Morrisey family “got rich working for the opioid industry.” The Senate Leadership Fund, the McConnell-aligned group, did not respond to a request for comment.

The family ties in West Virginia, however, run deep. Morrisey’s wife, Denise, until last quarter, was also one of the top lobbyists for the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a PhRMA-adjacent trade group, and she has lobbied for the drug distributor Cardinal Health.

Not every race pits a pharma CEO’s father against a full-blown pharma lobbyist. But the Manchin-Morrisey race is one of many races — nearly all of them toss-ups — that have been dominated in some way by discussions regarding the pharmaceutical industry. Below, we round up seven other races in which the drug industry is front and center.

Missouri (U.S. Senate): Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill is among the lawmakers who has most aggressively shamed drug makers on two fronts: for their price hikes and for their role in the opioid crisis. As the top Democrat on the Senate’s oversight committee, she’s commissioned reports about drug manufacturers hiking prices faster than inflation, distributors failing to flag suspicious shipments, and drug manufacturers misleadingly marketing painkillers.

McCaskill also co-sponsored legislation recently signed into law that prohibits so-called “gag clauses” at the pharmacy counter. Her GOP opponent, Josh Hawley, is among the numerous Republican attorneys general suing to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Wisconsin (Governor): Tony Evers, the Democratic challenger to Republican Gov. Scott Walker, is running on a plan to create a state board that would fine pharmaceutical companies that hike their prices without any justification, and to allow drug importation from Canada. Evers’s ad on the topic features a breast cancer patient who dings Walker as preferring to “play politics” over dealing with health care costs.

Drug pricing is also a factor in Wisconsin’s other statewide race, where Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin holds a sizable lead in her reelection bid. Baldwin is airing an ad that focuses on her work with the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on legislation that, much like Evers’ plan, would require drug makers to justify sizable price hikes. 

Maine’s 2nd Congressional District: Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin is in the crosshairs of Patients for Affordable Drugs Now, an outside group aiming to make pharmaceutical costs a key issue in the 2018 midterms. The group has run ads criticizing Poliquin for accepting campaign contributions from drug companies.

“My son has diabetes,” a mother tells the camera in one commercial. “I wish we had a congressman who cared more about him than drug company profits.” Poliquin’s Democratic opponent, Jared Golden, is running on a platform that includes allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices.

New Jersey (U.S. Senate): Bob Hugin, the Republican challenger to Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, is the former CEO of Celgene, a drug company that has been widely criticized for repeatedly hiking the price of the cancer drug Revlimid. Those price hikes have already been the subject of many a Menendez attack ad.

The national environment in 2018 is already difficult for Republicans, and polling shows high voter concern about drug prices, making Hugin’s road especially rough in a traditionally blue state. Hugin is likely competitive in the race because Menendez has his own raft of scandals, which include a recent mistrial in a federal corruption case.

New York’s 27th Congressional District: Republican Rep. Chris Collins was a key player in the 2017 congressional debate over whether to overhaul the Affordable Care Act — he sat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and on the panel’s health subcommittee. But then he was indicted for insider trading after allegedly dumping shares of the Australian biotech company Innate before information about a disappointing clinical trial became public.

Collins is still running for reelection. His Democratic challenger, Nate McMurray, pokes fun at Collins on his website with this line: “Corruption and the influence of big money in politics make it harder for people in our region to find good paying jobs or afford their prescription drugs.”

West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District: Richard Ojeda, an Army veteran and state senator, is an upstart Democratic candidate in a deep-red district that includes Huntington, a city on the front lines of the opioid epidemic. He had tough words for drug lobbyists last week, saying in a tweet: “I won’t take money from drug companies and I’ll throw their lobbyists out of my office.”

Most races in West Virginia seem to have a pharmaceutical industry angle. Beyond Manchin’s reelection bid and Ojeda’s effort, Republican Rep. David McKinley has earned praise and some supportive ads from Patients for Affordable Drugs for his work on pricing issues.

Indiana (U.S. Senate): Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly is locked in a tough reelection race in the Hoosier state, and he’s regularly relying on some rare praise from the Trump administration to appeal to voters who lean red.

That praise centers on Donnelly’s work on the “right to try” effort, a Trump administration priority now signed into law that supporters say will expand access to experimental treatments. (The FDA has said it already authorizes over 99 percent of requests by terminally ill patients to access experimental drugs.) Donnelly was a co-sponsor of that legislation and attended the White House signing ceremony for the package, along with two fellow Hoosier supporters: Vice President Mike Pence and Jordan McLinn, a 9-year-old from Indianapolis who has muscular dystrophy and who was one of the most prominent patient advocates for the new legislation in early 2018.

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