Republicans have believed for some time that Obamacare would be a golden ticket to congressional majorities, especially since the disastrous launch of HealthCare.gov in October. Conservative groups have started airings ads against vulnerable Democrats, blasting them for their allegiance to the law. With the law — and its eponymous president — underwater in the polls, what could go wrong?
Well, an intra-party civil war in which moderate positions are heresy could eliminate that apparent advantage — a conflict readily on display since House conservatives forced Speaker John Boehner into a government shutdown over the law while Sen. Ted Cruz undermined Senate GOP leadership in the other chamber. Polls have routinely shown that Americans don’t support Obamacare repeal, the only acceptable conservative position for now, and would rather see Congress work together to improve the law.
Democrats hope to seize on that discord — the GOP’s devotion to incorruptible Obamacare opposition, which runs counter to what the public says it wants — to turn the Republicans’ main weapon against them.
“If they wanted to win this issue, they would move their public position to be for fix, and Democrats would be stuck defending the status quo of the law and would be in a much tougher situation,” one Democratic operative told TPM. “But they’ve created an internal situation where they can’t do that.”
That gives Democrats the opportunity to embrace fixing Obamacare, while acknowledging its problems, and to pummel Republicans for continuing to stoke the repeal fire. A source in the room told TPM that Rep. Steve Israel, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, laid out the strategy during the House Democratic retreat last week: acknowledge the law needs fixing, punch Republicans on repeal, and pivot to an appeal to the law’s upside for people’s pocketbooks.
Republicans have refused to entertain a “fix” instead of a “repeal” message. In the Georgia Republican Senate primary, Rep. Jack Kingston dared to suggest in a radio interview that repealing Obamacare “might not be the responsible thing to do.”
Within days, his competitors were pushing ads taking shots at Kingston; Rep. Paul Broun touted that he was “the only candidate who has consistently fought to fully defund Obamacare.” Kingston was forced to walk back his comments following the firestorm.
“He had to double-down on complete repeal,” a second Democratic official said. “The truth of the matter is, even in a place like Georgia, what he articulated in the first instance is consistent with what the vast majority of people believe.”
“Once both sides agree you could use some fixes, it’s not an issue anymore,” the official continued. “It’s over as a political issue. If you’re at that granular level in a campaign, you’re not communicating with people. That, I think, is the most potent proof of where they are right now.”
The same dynamic played out in the GOP primary for the special Florida House election, where Kathleen Peters said she would not support repeal until Congress had its own replacement plan ready and her opponent David Jolly, who eventually won the nomination, attacked her for it.
Part of this conservative fixation on repeal could be a recognition that midterm elections are often as much about turning out the base as winning the support of undecided voters. But in closely contested races, Democrats believe the GOP’s rhetoric could give them the upper hand.
Republicans are naturally dismissive of that thinking, arguing that high-profile controversies like the “if you like your health plan, you can keep it” debacle have incontrovertibly poisoned the law for Democrats and the “fix” messaging will fall on deaf ears, regardless of their own party’s internal dynamics.
“The problem Democrats have is larger than just the unpopularity of Obamacare, it’s that voters no longer trust Democratic politicians like (Louisiana Sen.) Mary Landrieu and (Alaska Sen.) Mark Begich who have repeatedly been dishonest about the law,” Brad Dayspring, strategist at the National Republican Senatorial Campaign, told TPM. “These were all lies repeatedly told by (them) and voters can’t trust them to ‘fix’ the law.”
Democrats say internal polling and focus groups back their diagnosis of the voters, and public polling does give their argument some credence. While 50 percent of Americans said they disapproved of the law in a January poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, in line with most other surveys, that didn’t translate into support for repeal.
In fact, there was a 17-point gap between support for keeping Obamacare and improving it (55 percent) versus support for continuing attempts to repeal it (38 percent). Even 31 percent of those who oppose the law think it should be fixed instead of undone.
“What we find is that the two messages that voters are most receptive to are that we can’t let Republican candidates take us back to letting insurance companies discriminate against preexisting conditions and kicking us off our coverage when we get sick,” said Matt Canter, deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. His roster includes vulnerable senators like Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Landrieu who are being targeted over the law.
Instead, voters believe “we’ve wasted too much time trying to score political points and we have to address the other urgent problems that face the country right now,” Canter said.
Now it’s translating into ad copy.
Democratic congressional candidates and their allies have started retaliating in recent weeks against the huge conservative ad buys by groups like Americans for Prosperity. The Democratic-leaning Patriot Majority USA PAC released an ad last week ripping Hagan’s Republican challenger, Rep. Thom Tillis, for siding “with special interests and hurting North Carolina families.”
The pro-Democratic House Majority PAC also launched an ad last week supporting Rep. Joe Garcia (D-FL), whose seat is considered a toss-up, and rebuffing attack ads from AFP and others while presenting Peters as somebody who is “working to fix Obamacare.”
The Florida special House election next month could be the first test for each side’s Obamacare messaging. GOP nominee Jolly ran his primary campaign almost entirely on his opposition to the law, and Democratic candidate Alex Sink has been targeted relentlessly for her support.
But earlier this month, Sink’s campaign issued a new ad in which, in just 30 seconds, she follows the three-step strategy that Israel outlined to Democrats last week.
“We can’t go back to letting insurance companies do whatever they want. Instead of repealing the health care law, we need to keep what’s right and fix what’s wrong,” Sinks says. “I’ll work with Republicans and Democrats for health care that’s affordable and works for us.”