GOP suddenly has an Obamacare problem: Why they're now on defense

From Medicaid expansion to coverage for preexisting conditions, here's why all the analysis now looks premature

By Simon Maloy
May 13, 2014 7:00PM (UTC)
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John Boehner, Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell (Reuters/Larry Downing/Adrees Latif/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

A couple of months ago, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus was in high spirits. Speaking to reporters on the one-year anniversary of the RNC’s Growth and Opportunity Project, Priebus oozed confidence in his party’s prospects for the midterms. “I think we’re in for a tsunami-type election in 2014,” he said. “My belief is, it’s going to be a very big win, especially at the U.S. Senate level.”

His rationale was simple and made sense, at least superficially. The Democrats are defending a number of Senate seats in states that voted for Mitt Romney, where Obama’s popularity was and is in the toilet. Also: Obamacare. The law had had a disastrous rollout and was, in Priebus’ view, “total poison across the country.”


So what’s Reince Priebus been up to lately? Last week he gave a speech at the RNC’s spring meeting, and he’s still bullish about the party’s chances in November – “We’ve expanded the map. More Senate races are moving in our favor” – but he didn’t really talk about Affordable Care Act. Instead, he talked about the politics of Benghazi. “Democrats in fear of losing their seats will do desperate things,” he said. “And we know Democrats will go to great lengths to lie about their records. Just look at Benghazi.” Obamacare, so recently the key to Republican electoral dominance, received only a single, glancing mention in the RNC chairman’s remarks.

I wrote last week about how the changing fortunes of Obamacare flipped the political script at Sylvia Mathews Burwell’s confirmation hearing – Republicans were listless in their attacks on the law, while Sen. Kay Hagan, long considered a likely victim of the anti-Obamacare electoral “tsunami,” turned in a robust defense of the ACA. Since then we’ve seen more evidence that the politics of Obamacare, once considered toxic for Democrats and a boon for the GOP, have been jumbled.

NBC News released a trio of Senate polls yesterday that beat back hard against the 2014 conventional wisdom. The road to Republican control of the Senate runs through the South, with a number of vulnerable Democratic incumbents up for reelection. Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor has been at or near the top of the Republicans’ pickup list, due to the state’s increasingly conservative politics and his vote for the ACA. NBC’s poll found Pryor leading Republican challenger Tom Cotton by 11 points. Pryor’s robust lead comes in spite of the ACA’s entrenched unpopularity in the state; 55 percent of registered voters think the law is “a bad idea.”


You can dismiss that poll as an outlier or skewed or whatever, but Cotton has led in only one poll in the last three months.

NBC’s other two polls found that Republican-held Senate seats in Georgia and Kentucky were very much in play. The Kentucky poll shows the complexity in public attitudes toward the ACA. Kentucky was one of the few Southern states to embrace the Affordable Care Act. NBC asked Kentuckians their opinions both of “Obamacare” and of Kynect, the state-based health exchange. They overwhelmingly dislike “Obamacare,” with 57 percent saying they view it unfavorably. However, more people said they like Kynect (29 percent) than dislike it (22 percent). It’s amazing what happens when you take the “Obama” out of Obamacare.

And as it turns out, some heavy-hitting progressive groups are trying to do a variation of that: promote Obamacare by focusing on the more popular aspect of the law. The Washington Post reported on Friday that Planned Parenthood, SEIU and have all launched campaigns “aimed at mobilizing support for the law and the officials who back it. By focusing on more popular parts of the law — including Medicaid expansion, free birth-control coverage and a bar on denying coverage for preexisting conditions — the groups hope to coax individuals who often skip voting in midterm elections to make it to the polls.”


The Medicaid expansion is emerging as the key issue for Democrats when politicking on the ACA. It’s what Hagan hung her ACA defense on during Burwell’s hearing, and she’s using it to attack her Republican opponent, Thom Tillis, who led the South Carolina Legislature in rejecting expanded Medicaid within the state.

And while all this is happening, Republicans are quietly letting the Affordable Care Act recede as an issue. Last week was a bad one for anti-Obamacare activism by congressional Republicans – the much-hyped Burwell hearing was a dud, and they were embarrassed by insurance executives who refused to trash the ACA during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing. Now the Hill reports that the next few weeks will be free of anti-Obamacare hearings in the House. Right now, Fox News and high-profile Republicans would much rather talk about Benghazi.


It’s naive to think that the GOP cease-fire on Obamacare will last or that polling from May is a good predictor of what will happen in November. And none of what’s happening should be misinterpreted as a sign that the Affordable Care Act will be a winner for the Democrats six months from now. The bad electoral map and storied apathy of the Democratic base on midterm years still give the Republicans the edge. But the political gyrations of the past few weeks are strong evidence that the Affordable Care Act is not the “tsunami”-inducing issue Republicans would have us believe it is.

Simon Maloy

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