Koch-backed ads corner Dems on ObamaCare

Koch Brothers-backed groups have spent more than $20 million on ObamaCare attacks in the past six months. 

The answer from Democrats? Mostly crickets. 

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That spending disparity reflects the realization within the Democratic Party that following such a rocky rollout they may not be able to “run on ObamaCare,” as many of their leaders have predicted. Instead, the party’s safest strategy may be to fight the healthcare argument to a draw.

"Obviously, it would be great if there was more cover on our side,” admitted one Democratic strategist engaged in a top Senate race. 

But they added, “that said, we’re holding strong and feeling pretty confident that the cavalry will be there when we need it."

So instead of wading into a costly battle that most admit can only be fought to a draw, Democrats are holding on to their resources, pledging to spend them wisely on targeted ads focused on issues they believe Americans care most about, and issues they do think they can win on, like the economy.

Conservatives argue the damage has already been done as their bankrolled campaigns have put the issue of ObamaCare again front and center in voters’ minds. 

“We want ObamaCare to be the number one issue for 2014 and really beyond, and we’re determined to do what it takes to make that happen,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-backed group that’s already dumped $22.5 million into House and Senate races on ObamaCare attacks. 

Senate Majority PAC spokesman Ty Matsdorf defended the group’s response, but admitted it would be impossible to match AFP.

The group spent over $4 million last year in key races, the bulk of that on the Massachusetts Senate special election to elect Sen. Ed Markey and to protect Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.). 

“I think we are [answering] their attacks. Not at the same money level because, look, they have more money than us. But what we have to do is make sure these races remain competitive,” he said.

Notably absent from the debate are progressive advocacy groups known for promoting President Obama’s agenda. 

Both Organizing for Action, the nonprofit created from Obama’s campaign operation and Americans United for Change, a progressive advocacy group, have focused more on grassroots efforts to get Americans enrolled in coverage and less on air wars.

That may change as the administration moves away from the rocky rollout and benefits of the law emerge. OFA just launched a month-long digital ad campaign encouraging Americans to sign up, and the Obama administration announced last week that former NBA stars are cutting ads encouraging enrollment that will run during basketball games and the Winter Olympics.

But AFP has had the airwaves largely to itself since August, and it remains to be seen whether Democrats can regain their footing on the law.

Democratic strategists on both the House and Senate levels readily admit they’ll be outspent on ObamaCare. And strategists in both House and Senate races said Democrats may not be able to win the argument to begin with.

“The water is so muddied on it right now that really the only way to win this argument is once the law is working really well, to point out the advantages. That’s the only way we can win the argument, and that’s going to take a while to happen,” said one national Democratic strategist engaged in Senate races.

“The cake is so baked on it [right now], I just don’t see where we can win the ObamaCare fight.”

Democrats say, however, that even if they can’t win the ObamaCare battle, it doesn’t mean they’ve lost the 2014 fight. 

They point to polling that shows the economy is the number-one issue for Americans, and tout widespread support for Democratic proposals like raising the minimum wage and extending unemployment insurance benefits as winning issues for their candidates.

"I think you can fight to a draw, but I don't think anybody wants to go into a district to start advertising on that particular issue if numbers aren't being moved on that particular issue,” one Democratic strategist engaged in House races told The Hill.

But Democrats realize that with limited funds, they have to pick their battles — and ObamaCare’s not their best option.

“It’s two things: Democrats know that we have to be smarter with our money because we don’t have a limitless amount the way that the Kochs do, and two, voters made it very clear that jobs and the economy is the number one issue, and that they’re with us on jobs and the economy,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky.

Democrats are pledging to air highly-targeted ads during the summer and fall campaigns, when they believe their message will hit harder, and the picture will be clearer on what will win in November. But they admit it’s difficult to tout the benefits of the law when they remain largely hypothetical, and unwise to focus on hypotheticals while the law’s rollout has been so resoundingly negative. 

“We’re not there yet. The story on health care is unfinished,” said Rodell Molineau, president of Democratic opposition shop American Bridge and a former communications strategist for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“Republicans know that the sands could actually shift on health care. They want to get out on it early. It’s their number one best bullet,” Molineau added. “I would caution them about putting all their eggs in one basket.”

But the lack of cover from outside groups have revived frustrations within the party that the White House didn’t do enough to get out ahead on the ObamaCare debate and set up a positive vision of the law before the 2014 elections.

Some Democrats are frustrated with what they see as too little, too late from the party. One Democratic strategist engaged in a competitive Senate race this cycle said that Democrats seem to “think [ObamaCare] is such a glaring vulnerability that you want to avoid it.”

“We should’ve been having these conversations back in 2009 and 2010. Maybe it is too late, which is part of the reason we lost 60-some seats. We never had an aggressive paid effort to try to communicate what we were doing. We lost the battle then and maybe it’s lost now,” the strategist said.

The strategist called for more resources early on, however, pointing to the strategy that helped Democratic super PACs compete so effectively with their better-funded GOP counterparts in the 2012 elections. Then, super PAC Priorities USA aired devastating ads defining Mitt Romney early on, from which he was never able to recover.

Mollineau, admitted that “of course things could’ve been done differently” on ObamaCare messaging. 

“I think that, I don't think anyone, including Democrats, including reporters, including Republicans, thought it would take as long as it did and be as hard as it was to craft a piece of legislation and get it to the president’s desk. I think that most of the effort was put into actually putting together a piece of legislation that was going to benefit the American people,” he said. 

Obama’s pollster, Joel Benenson, said at a Wednesday breakfast the morning after the State of the Union, said he hadn’t yet polled on the potential impact of ObamaCare on the 2014 elections, but he believes it will be an issue in 2014.

“Are there some people who are unhappy with [ObamaCare]? Probably. Will they vote against their Democratic congressperson or senator because of it? Maybe,” he added.

But Benenson prescribed — and foreshadowed — a solution to that possibility: Go on offense.

“On this issue, Democrats are going to have to engage this debate, and they’re going to have to, you know, win on it,” he said. “I think part of it is going to be, to be able to talk about…the accomplishments of the bill.”