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Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Vulnerable Senate Democrats have found a common villain: the pharmaceutical industry. They're highlighting both drug prices and the opioid epidemic as they try to make their cases to voters.

The big picture: Democrats already think health care is a strong issue for them this year, given the unpopularity of the GOP's repeal and replace effort. Opioids and drug prices both resonate deeply with voters, and some Democratic incumbents do have long track records on one or both issues.

Why now: Tackling the opioid epidemic and reducing the cost of prescription drugs are unifying issues, and pharmaceutical companies — which are deeply unpopular with voters — are the shared target.

  • "Both are key planks for red state Democrats," said Jim Manley, a former aide to Sen. Harry Reid. "On opioids they can brag about the money they voted for. On [prescription] drugs they can use the issue to bang up on Republicans."

What they're saying:

  • Many Democrats up for re-election in the Senate — including Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Claire McCaskill of Missouri — represent states that have been hit hard by the epidemic. They've cosponsored a long list of bills, and taken other actions, on the issue.
  • For some members, it's personal. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin has released an ad in which she speaks about her mother's prescription drug addiction.
  • Tina Smith, who replaced Al Franken earlier this year and is up for re-election in Minnesota, targeted her first-ever bill at lowering drug prices.
  • The opioid epidemic and drug prices "have been major topics on the campaign. Those issues seem to come up at nearly every stop," said Max Steele, a spokesman for Casey's campaign.

Access to treatment is the way this ties back to an attack on the GOP health plan: “Even as Americans are grappling with the horrific opioid epidemic, Republicans are running on a health care agenda that increases costs and slashes access for drug addiction treatment and prevention services," said David Bergstein, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

  • Last year, the DSCC ran a series of ads in states where vulnerable Democrats are up for re-election highlighting how the GOP health plan could jeopardize addiction treatment. It's likely that this comes up again.

The other side: Some of these Democratic incumbents are up against challengers who also have a record of fighting the opioid epidemic, including state attorneys general like Patrick Morrisey in West Virginia and Josh Hawley in Missouri.

  • The popularity of the two issues creates liabilities for candidates who have a questionable history with pharmaceutical companies. This has already been problematic for both Manchin and Morrisey in West Virginia.

In the House, Republicans in swing districts are the ones pointing to their votes tackling the opioid epidemic.

Go deeper

Former Defense Secretary Esper sues Pentagon over book

Former President Trump and former Defense Secretary Mark Esper at the White House in 2020. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper filed a lawsuit against the Defense Department, accusing the Pentagon of "censoring" his First Amendment rights by redacting parts of his upcoming book on the Trump administration.

The big picture: Esper, who served as defense secretary from July 2019 until he was fired by then-President Trump in November last year, alleges in the suit that "significant text" is "being improperly withheld from publication" of the manuscript "under the guise of classification."

WHO warns against travel bans on southern African countries

Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization regional director for Africa. Photo: Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

The World Health Organization called on countries Sunday to not impose travel bans on southern African nations amid concerns over the new COVID-19 Omicron variant.

Why it matters: The U.S. and countries in Europe and the Asia-Pacific announced travel restrictions in response to Omicron, which was first detected in South Africa. It's since spread to several European countries, Canada, Israel, Australia and Hong Kong. The WHO noted in a statement that only two southern African nations have detected the new variant.

Updated 5 hours ago - Health

First North American Omicron cases identified in Canada

COVID-19 testing personnel at Toronto Pearson International Airport in September. Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The first two cases of the new Omicron variant have been detected in North America, the Canadian government announced Sunday evening.

Driving the news: The World Health Organization has named Omicron a "variant of concern," but cautioned earlier on Sunday that it is not yet clear whether it's more transmissible than other strains of COVID-19.