The death of Obamacare as a campaign issue has been greatly exaggerated.
Two months before Election Day, senior Republican strategists working on key Senate campaigns say they intend to continue using the Affordable Care Act to weigh down their Democratic opponents, despite talk that the issue is fading.
In some cases, they say simply tying the Democratic candidate to President Obama’s healthcare law could prove decisive. But even in races where it isn’t a knockout blow, GOP operatives say it is a useful symbol for disgruntled voters of their dissatisfaction with the president.
“There is absolutely no issue more salient than Obamacare in any Senate race that I know about,” a Republican strategist advising multiple candidates told the Washington Examiner. “It has become a proxy for Obama’s job approval as a whole — or maybe it’s the driver.”
The Republicans need to flip six seats on Nov. 4 to assume control of the Senate in 2015, and are pressing vulnerable Democratic incumbents in a handful of GOP-leaning Southern states and in other states across the Midwest and in other regions.
The degree to which the Affordable Care Act endangers Democrats varies.
But Republicans say that voters’ disapproval with Obamacare during the program’s troubled first year has directly influenced Obama’s job approval ratings — by sinking them. The president’s job approval tends to be the biggest indicator of the opposition party’s prospects for picking up congressional seats in a midterm election.
Republican strategists point to a collection of polls released in July that tested both Obama’s job approval rating and voter attitudes toward the Affordable Care Act.
The surveys of nine states, most that feature competitive Senate races, showed a close correlation between Obama’s job approval and Obamacare’s approval. In Kentucky, for instance, a July Rasmussen poll showed identical approve-disapprove numbers for Obama and Obamacare, with 38 percent approving and 60 percent disapproving, respectively.
“It’s not a magic bullet as a ‘last 90 days message’ in every race,” a Republican consultant with House and Senate clients said. “But it deserves 95 percent of the credit for creating the favorable environment that we’ve been gifted.”
Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in an email exchange that “it’s clear that the GOP strategy of winning back the Senate on ACA alone has failed.” He charged that, in opposing Obamacare, Republicans “want to allow insurance companies to go back to abusing patients so badly that they’ve been willing to shut down the government to make it happen.”
Polling conducted this election cycle has suggested that supporting the healthcare law isn’t enough to get a Democrat fired. Voters overwhelmingly oppose Obamacare, but haven’t warmed to the broadly embraced Republican promise to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act with various patient-centered reforms that, although proposed, aren’t widely understood.
But Republicans note that they were only able to dig themselves out of last October’s politically disastrous government shutdown over funding the law because of voters’ disapproval of the troubled healthcare.gov rollout, which weighed down Obama’s job performance. The GOP’s approval numbers tanked, but the party rebounded when voters’ attention shifted to the failing Obamacare exchange website and the cancellation of many insurance plans.
Almost one year later, Obamacare’s poor approval numbers have hardly moved. According to the RealClearPolitics.com average, the law’s approval rating is 41.2 percent, with 54.4 percent disapproving. Some Republican Senate campaigns have stopped polling the issue, determining that their money can be better spent testing the politics of other issues.
Republican strategists say that perhaps in swing states like Colorado, where Republican Rep. Cory Gardner is nipping at Sen. Mark Udall’s, D-Colo., heels, or red states like Georgia, where Democrat Michelle Nunn is running strong against Republican businessman David Perdue and trying to steal an open GOP-held seat, the healthcare law’s strong disapproval numbers aren’t enough, on their own, to win the race.
“We’ve got to finish the job with another issue,” a Republican pollster said. “I don’t know that it’s one cookie-cutter issue, it might come down to each campaign finding a vulnerability.”
For some top Republican Senate campaigns, however, Obamacare is that vulnerability. The key, said the Republican consultant with House and Senate clients, is to approach the issue from “targeted, new angles and getting away from the same three or four generic hit that have been repeated for four years.”
In Arkansas, Mark Pryor recently ran a television spot touting his support for the healthcare law. He didn’t mention Obama or Obamacare in the ad. But it was among the more aggressive attempts by a Democrat this cycle to own up to his support for the Affordable Care Act, and some saw the move as another example of the issue losing its political potency for Pryor’s challenger, Republican Rep. Tom Cotton.
But this week Crossroads GPS, a GOP nonprofit, went on Arkansas television with an ad that reminded voters that the healthcare law Pryor was talking about in his spot was Obamacare.
In Iowa, where Republican Joni Ernst is running even with Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley for a Democratic-held open seat, the GOP also believes Obamacare is among the issues that can win the race. As in Arkansas, strategists sees the law as a handy shorthand for support of Obama’s overall agenda as well as a specific policy that hasn’t delivered as advertised.
This week, the Iowa Republican Party circulated three emails targeting Braley for voting to enact Obamacare four years ago and for maintaining his strong support for the law since then. The emails focused on the supposed failings of the law, but also on unpopular Washington figures like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Braley’s ties to her.
“Obamacare remains unpopular as a concept,” an Iowa Republican operative said. “It drives numbers and it is a cudgel.”