GOP Post-Shutdown Electoral Strategy: We Need More Senators To Fight Obamacare


UPDATE: 11:56 a.m. ET

If there’s one lesson Republicans say they learned from the government shutdown and debt ceiling negotiations it’s that the only real way to fight Obamacare is to have greater control of Congress and a winning majority in the Senate.

“At the end of the day I think what we learned more than anything in this entire exercise is that if we truly want to repeal Obamacare we need more votes,” Republican National Committee Communications Director Sean Spicer told TPM.

As the top party leaders in Congress solidified a deal to end the shutdown and prevent economic catastrophe some Republicans spent the last few hours of the impasse pointing fingers at each other. Some blamed outside groups like Heritage Action for America or the Senate Conservatives Fund. Others pointed toward the tea party. And still others explained the debacle as not going far enough to fight Obamacare in the final deal.

But beyond the finger-pointing, the substantive takeaway for campaign operatives is that a better approach would have been to pursue what was achievable given that Republicans control only one chamber of Congress. To do more, they say, they’re going to need more conservative senators willing to go as far as Ted Cruz.

“The premise going into this was that even if the House passes it there’s no way you can do it in the Senate and there was a group of folks that believed that because the Democrats don’t hold a filibuster-proof majority that you could, if you really tried, you could actually make some headway,” Spicer continued. “I think that was proven that that’s not maybe entirely true, but there’s one surefire way … to get around that argument: if we elect more senators, we can win the fight.”

Republicans don’t see the government shutdown as the be-all-end-all for fighting Obamacare. They still see it as a winning issue to campaign on against Democrats in the 2014 and 2016 election cycles. But in the last few hours ahead of votes to end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling Republicans indicated that the strategy championed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and other conservatives may have been had some flaws.

“[Obamacare] wasn’t popular to oppose in this town,” Freedomworks President and CEO Matt Kibbe said on CNN. Freedomworks was one of a handful of outside conservative groups that led the charge on the defund Obamacare strategy during the debt ceiling and shutdown negotiations, and Kibbe promised that Republicans who voted yes on the deal would face primary challengers in 2014.

In an interview with conservative radio hosts Wednesday morning Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) said Republicans “should have “gone for a bigger compromise and a bigger reduction in Obamacare rather than the whole enchilada.”

Isakson’s comments reflect an emerging hindsight-is-20/20 opinion among Republicans. For them, the question was never whether Obamacare should be completely defunded rather than partially dismantled. Rather, the question is when is the right time to chip away at the law and when is the right time to push for complete defunding. Some Republicans, like Isakson, say the government shutdown and debt negotiations were a perfect opportunity to chip away at portions of the law, like the medical device tax, but not try and repeal the whole thing.

“In hindsight, we should have, in my judgement, simply focused on delaying Obamacare,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), who voted for a continuing resolution that would have defunded Obamacare in September, told conservative radio host Bill Bennet. “If we’d been more consistent in our argument — and it’s what we have to do going forward, sticking to that fundamental argument — I think we could win this with the American people and begin to reverse the direction of this Obamacare.”

The root of the problem with the defund Obamacare strategy during the government funding and debt ceiling negotiations was that it was a strategy without an end goal, one senior Republican political official told TPM.

“I would say the takeaway is to never move forward on a strategy that doesn’t appear to have an endgame,” the official said. “Without getting into the nuts and bolts I think you know that there are many of us who didn’t think that following this route of defund would ever really have an endgame. So you could go back and forth about who’s fault that was, was it Ted Cruz or was it House leadership for following Ted Cruz or was it the member of the House, a lot of finger pointing to go around. But in general, everyone has to learn the lesson of not pursuing a strategy that doesn’t have an endgame. And not pursuing a strategy that doesn’t have data supporting your argument.”

On Wednesday, Michael Needham, the CEO of Heritage Action for America, one of the groups that pressured Republicans into demanding that the government only re-open if Obamacare was defunded, said that Republicans knew all along that the healthcare law was unlikely to go away entirely unless Republicans controlled more than just the House.

“Well everybody, understands that we’ll not be able to repeal this law until 2017,” Needham said. “We have to win the Senate and win the White House. Right now it is clear that this bill is not ready for prime time. It is clear the bill is unfair.”

The GOP official said that the rational view among Republicans has always been that Obamacare could only be displaced bit-by-bit while the GOP does not control the White House or Senate.

“Look, I think that has long been our strategy for Republicans which is to keep moving that in our favor and the eventual goal of Republicans is to repeal,” the official said. “I think the consensus and I think our belief is the only real way that Obamacare is ever going to be repealed is by winning control of the Senate and putting control on the White House and even at that point it’s going to require enough to override a veto and winning the White House and so we need to take incremental victories where you can and take progress where you can specifically when you’re trying to undo what we perceive is the harm that the law is going to cause.”

The GOP official echoed Isakson’s sentiment that the recent negotiations was a perfect opportunity for House Republicans to lead an effort to hit portions of the law like the medical device tax.

“Why did they choose not to do it? Because they decided in the House that getting 218 votes was more important than say getting 120 and 100 Democrats to do it,” the official continued. “I don’t know why they did that. That being said it would have been, though a small and incremental victory in the context of repealing and defunding Obamacare, it would have been a victory nonetheless. And I think politically speaking both sides would agree small, incremental victories are better than either utter defeats or nothing.”