The Democratic Obamacare Freakout Hasn’t Actually Happened

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A couple weeks ago, a Republican triumphed over a Democrat in a special House election in Florida. Because much of the conversation about the race centered on Obamacare and its possible role in the outcome, the Democratic defeat was quickly extrapolated by some as a full damnation for the party’s Obamacare message and its prospects for the midterm elections, where the Democrats are defending seats in deep-red states where the health care reform law is unpopular.

“Florida loss exposes Democrats’ disarray on Obamacare” was among the headlines that followed. A somber examination of how Democrats approach Obamacare — and whether they needed to separate themselves from it — was supposed to be imminent. And, to be clear, there was undoubtedly some anxiety, especially within the Beltway.

But with a few weeks of distance, has anything really changed on the ground, particularly in the battleground states that will determine control of the Senate and where Obamacare is expected to be a critical issue? Any signs of panic from the Democratic candidates who should have been shaken by the vote in Florida?

Actually, both Democratic and Republican strategists in two of those key states told TPM the answer is no. In fact, polling suggests it is far from certain exactly how Obamacare will factor into the November elections.

“No, I don’t think we’ve heard anything really on that,” said Dee Stewart, a Republican strategist in North Carolina, where incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan (D) has been a frequent target of outside groups for her support of Obamacare. “She’s really doubled-down on that the whole way. Not to say that we won’t, but we have not.”

Hagan, like most other Democrats in tough races, is adopting a “keep, but fix” message, hoping to contrast with the “repeal” stance of Republican opponents. Part of that is a matter of necessity — what else could they really say about the law? — but the outcome of the Florida special election hasn’t led to any kind of panic or shift in strategy from her, Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist in the state, also told TPM.

That reaction or lack thereof extended to Arkansas, where Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor has also been attacked for backing Obamacare.

Robert McLarty, a Democratic strategist in Arkansas, told TPM the Pryor campaign’s reaction to the Florida special election had been minimal. “It’s not really making much headway.”

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR)

The more salient question could be: Do we actually know whether and how Obamacare is going to move votes at the ballot box? The answer is not as clear as the conventional wisdom might suggest.

A March 12 poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal found 48 percent of Americans said they would be more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate who supported keeping and fixing the law, while 47 percent said they would be more likely to vote for a Republican candidate who supports repealing and eliminating it.

That’s pretty much a wash. A Bloomberg News poll released the day before showed that 64 percent of Americans support keeping the law, either as it is or with small changes. Only 34 percent said it should be repealed.

Now there are some good reasons Obamacare could hurt Democrats in November. One top Democratic strategist told TPM that health care is more likely to be the number one or two issue for Republican voters while it is more likely to rank third, fourth or fifth for independents or Democrats. The Bloomberg News poll found 73 percent of repeal supporters said that they would definitely vote and that health care would be a major factor. Those numbers dropped off among those who supported fixing the law or keeping it as is.

Others agreed that, considering how important turnout has been historically in midterm elections, Republicans are talking up Obamacare because it motivates their voters to get out to the polls.

“People strongly believe that it’s being used for base intensity, for driving base turnout,” Stan Greenberg, a top Democratic pollster, told TPM. “People are very alert to that.”

So what’s going to turn Democratic voters out? The national committees are investing a lot of money in an Obama-campaign-style turnout effort, for starters. As for the issues, broader economic policies are expected to carry the load. In North Carolina, for example, Jackson said Democrats will likely exploit the ultra-conservative agenda that the GOP-controlled state legislature has advanced in recent years, especially if state House Speaker Thom Tillis is the Republican nominee against Hagan.

That’s also why congressional Democrats and the White House are pushing the minimum wage hike and women’s economic policies — and why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has been painting the AFP-founding Koch brothers as the villains in the national political narrative.

In that context, Greenberg said Democrats might have an opening to place Obamacare in that context and use it to their advantage. Talking about the law’s benefits — and warning about the consequences of a Republican Congress trying to repeal it — could have the desired effect with their base.

“The Affordable Care Act thing, I think, is still open on how people go on this,” Greenberg said. “The question is: Do you lean into it? Is it a kind of mostly let’s get it fixed? Or is it that these are serious transformative changes that have to happen? That’s still being sorted.”

“If your goal is to turn out your base, my guess is that many people are going to lean into the benefits.”

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