GOP surrenders on Obamacare: Why they slashed spending on anti-ACA ads

The right's dream of flogging Obamacare all the way to November is over, and they're scrambling for a new strategy

Topics: Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, Healthcare Reform, midterm elections, Midterms, 2014 elections, Bloomberg News, Republicans, The Right, GOP, Editor's Picks,

GOP surrenders on Obamacare: Why they slashed spending on anti-ACA adsJohn Boehner, Ted Cruz (Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com)

The Obamacare air war is turning out to be one of the most interesting facets of the 2014 midterms. At the end of last year and in early 2014, Republicans and conservative pundits were forthright in their belief that the Affordable Care Act and its many implementation-related stumbles were political kryptonite for Democrats, and many millions of dollars were spent producing and airing advertisements attacking the law and anyone with a (D) next to their name who was even tangentially associated with it.

The strategy made sense at the time: The Affordable Care was going through a public relations nightmare, and GOP strategists saw not only a political weapon to use against the Democrats, but an enduring policy failure that would not get better. “Fixing the website problems will not fix Obamacare,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres wrote in November 2013. “The myriad problems identified by Republicans throughout the congressional debate are becoming obvious as the law is implemented. Policies are being canceled. Requirements to buy comprehensive policies that people do not want or need are causing premiums to skyrocket. Healthy young people are not signing up.” That message, and the promise of anti-Obamacare ads sinking Democrats, was eaten up by pundits.

And so the negative ACA ads blared across competitive districts and states, completely drowning out the mild whisper of pro-ACA advertisements by a factor of 15-to-1.

But in the months since the law’s rollout, the many problems Obamacare faced – broken website, skyrocketing premiums, insufficient numbers of young enrollees – were either fixed or never materialized. And Obamacare, contrary to Republican expectations, started working. Enrollees started receiving benefits and benefiting from subsidized coverage. And now, according to Bloomberg, spending on anti-ACA advertisements has plummeted:

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Republicans seeking to unseat the U.S. Senate incumbent in North Carolina have cut in half the portion of their top issue ads citing Obamacare, a sign that the party’s favorite attack against Democrats is losing its punch.

The shift — also taking place in competitive states such as Arkansas and Louisiana — shows Republicans are easing off their strategy of criticizing Democrats over the Affordable Care Act now that many Americans are benefiting from the law and the measure is unlikely to be repealed.

Thus died the Republican dream of riding Obamacare to a crushing midterm victory. As Bloomberg put it, the focus is shifting from simply attacking the ACA to linking it to economic ills, like the slow recovery and the weak job market. “The party’s experience across the country shows that Republicans can’t count on the issue to motivate independent voters they need to oust Democrats in Arkansas, Louisiana and Alaska,” Bloomberg reports.

This is the culmination of a broader trend – spotted long ago by some sharp observers – in which the ACA has slowly receded as a political issue and forced Republicans to subtly recalibrate their positions on the law. GOP candidates in tough Senate races have tweaked their anti-ACA attacks from “REPEAL IT NOW, TEAR IT OUT ROOT AND BRANCH!” to “Yes repeal but maybe also keep some stuff.” Their positions are nonsensical and contradictory. And they all suffer from a critical lack of specificity, given the Republican Party’s general unwillingness to say which policy they’d put in the Affordable Care Act’s place once they repeal it. You get the strong sense that Republicans just never expected the law to actually work and don’t really know what to do now that it is.

They have to dance around the issue like this because “full repeal” became an impossibility once the law went into effect. Bloomberg spotlighted the example of a Romney voter in North Carolina who enrolled for coverage through Obamacare when she hit hard times. “Duke, who lost her flooring business after her husband died last year, says she now has a favorable view of the measure and is angry at her state’s Republican governor, Pat McCrory, for refusing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.” It’s stories like those that push Republicans away from the hard-line repeal message.

As for the ads themselves, Republicans have been concerned for a while now that the flood of anti-Obamacare messaging early on left public opinion ossified. Polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation bears that out: Since 2010, approval of the law has been basically static among self-identified Democrats, Republicans and Independents. There’s even an argument to be made that the overwhelming quantity of negative advertising actually boosted ACA enrollment by raising awareness of the law and, counterintuitively, encouraging people to take advantage of Obamacare’s benefits before the GOP-promised repeal happened.

What will likely happen sometime in the coming months, as we get closer to Election Day, is the volume of Obamacare ads will once again spike – not because they’ll have regained their effectiveness, but because Republicans will want to claim that anti-Obamacare sentiment motivated people to go vote. From that, they’ll claim a mandate to undo the law, even though they’re spending the midterm home stretch shifting their focus to issues other than the Affordable Care Act.

Simon Maloy

Simon Maloy is Salon's political writer. Email him at smaloy@salon.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SimonMaloy.

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