Michelle Nunn Walks A Tightrope On Obamacare In Georgia Senate Race

In this photo taken by AP Images for Billion + Change, Points of Light CEO Michelle Nunn speaks at the launch of A Billion + Change, a national campaign to mobilize billions of pro bono and skills-based service resou... In this photo taken by AP Images for Billion + Change, Points of Light CEO Michelle Nunn speaks at the launch of A Billion + Change, a national campaign to mobilize billions of pro bono and skills-based service resources by 2013, at a ceremony on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011 in Washington. MORE LESS
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In an election cycle that Republicans appear persistent in making about Obamacare, Michelle Nunn is in an interesting spot in the Georgia Senate race. The daughter of popular former Sen. Sam Nunn, she’s never held political office, so unlike vulnerable Democrats like Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and Arkansas’s Mark Pryor, Nunn never voted for the health care reform law.

One of the only Democrats with a real hope of stealing a Republican-held seat, Nunn can chart her own course on Obamacare. And while President Barack Obama last week was urging Democrats to “forcefully defend” the law as it hit 8 million sign-ups, don’t expect her to follow his lead.

It’s more of a tightrope walk for Nunn: distancing herself from a law that’s unpopular in Georgia, which should help her win over independents, without going so far that she estranges herself from the Democratic base that she’ll need in November. But some outside the campaign question whether she can maintain it through the fall.

Thus far, Nunn has divvied up her positions on the law. She supported a one-year delay of the individual mandate, but has embraced Medicaid expansion, preventing discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions and letting kids stay on their parents’ plan until age 26. Early in her campaign, she lambasted state Republicans for rejecting Medicaid expansion, focusing in particular on veterans who had lost out on an opportunity to obtain coverage.

That tracks with the image the Nunn campaign wants to convey of her as a problem-solver able to work across party lines. The campaign, for instance, has aired ads talking up her work with President George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light foundation.

For now, a nasty Republican Senate primary has largely captured the media’s attention thus far and Nunn has stayed somewhat low-key on the subject — the Affordable Care Act is almost entirely absent from her campaign page. It’s never going to be a top priority for her, but, eventually, Republicans will attack her over the law and she’ll have to respond. That’s when her balancing act will be tested.

“I am running as someone who wants to fix the things that are broken in the health care system and build upon the things that are good,” Nunn said during an interview last month. That’s not going to change after the law hit 8 million sign-ups, her campaign indicated to TPM.

“I’m talking about let’s take it out of the political lens,” Nunn told Time magazine, “and let’s just focus on what we would do together to fix health care and make it better and more available, more effective and more cost efficient.”

Public polling seems to validate the approach. A September survey by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found 57 percent disapproved of Obamacare while only 31 percent approved. But a March poll by SurveyUSA showed 59 percent of Georgians support Medicaid expansion.

Whether holding the law at arm’s length is a sustainable strategy, though, remains to be seen. Nunn has been spared the multi-million dollar campaign that the conservative Americans for Prosperity launched against incumbent Senate Democrats, and the group hasn’t given any indication that it plans to make much noise in the Georgia race — where Nunn is generally polling neck-and-neck with the various GOP rivals she might face.

But that doesn’t get Nunn out of the woods yet. Another billionaire-funded conservative super PAC called Ending Spending started airing ads earlier this month attacking Nunn for her support of Obamacare. The Nunn campaign has pushed back by pointing out where she differs with the Obama administration on the law, but there are Georgia Democratic strategists who think she may need to be more forceful — as the president himself advised Thursday.

“I don’t see how there’s any use in not talking about it. I would rather talk about it heavily,” Eric Gray, former communications director for the state Democratic Party and now an independent consultant, told TPM. “Her opponents are going to claim her as Obama’s right-hand woman and as Obamacare’s biggest supporter.”

Gray is not working with the Nunn campaign, but he said she should point to the 200,000-plus Georgians who have signed up for private coverage under the law. “Let those be the ambassadors of how awesome it is,” he said. But he’s skeptical that she will.

“She doesn’t want to talk about the ACA,” Gray said. “I think it could be a mistake.”

Nunn’s campaign is aware that Republicans are going to attack her simply because she’s a member of Obama’s party. But it seems certain that it can counter Obamacare attacks by presenting her as a pragmatic fixer, the position she’s been cultivating.

The winning coalition for Nunn, strategists on both sides agree, is strong Democratic turnout while winning over independent women. So it’s easy to view her Obamacare stance through that lens, Todd Rehm, a Republican strategist, told TPM. She can’t abandon the law entirely — or else risk alienating the base. But her “fix-it” message should appeal to those voters in the middle who might be persuaded to vote for a Democrat.

“There’s a tension for her, where I think that the national establishment understands that Georgia is not the most progressive state. There’s some willingness to accept some amount of distancing from politically troublesome issues,” Rehm said. “But she can’t afford to get to where she says something that can be interpreted as a slap in the face to the administration or to the folks who support Obamacare.”

“Because in November, she wants all Democrats to turn out. She can’t lose anything there. So that’s the built-in tension for any Democratic candidate trying to win in Georgia.”

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