Republicans focused on winning back the Senate have a clear goal this year: convincing voters that vulnerable Democrats are liars.
In their eyes, every senator is the 60th vote that helped pass the 2010 legislation, and every Democrat is personally liable for healthcare failures.
“We’re talking about the broken promises in ObamaCare,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Brook Hougesen. “So many of the promises they’ve made have turned out to be false.”
The goal is to erode voters’ trust in respected members, not just hit them on the law’s problems.
Many of the Senate Democrats facing tough reelection battles have won in the past despite their state’s GOP lean because they have been able to rely on their personal popularity and well-known brands.
These Democrats’ coalitions depend on winning voters who trust they are doing what they believe is right, even if they disagree with them on some policies, or have little fondness for their party at the national level. If red-state senators like Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) lose that trust, they’re likely to lose their seats.
One way Republicans are looking to reinforce that idea is continuing to brand Democrats alongside the president for the law’s shortcomings. Voters can expect to hear a lot about BegichCare, HaganCare or PryorCare this year.
“New Report: BegichCare is a Job Killer,” Alaska Senate candidate Dan Sullivan (R) trumpeted in a press release last week.
“Millions of Americans could lose their jobs because of Mark Begich,” Sullivan continued. “Not only did he cast the deciding vote for ObamaCare, but he along with President Obama repeatedly misled Alaskans by promising them they could keep their healthcare plan under the disastrous law.”
Hougesen said that while Obama-Care is a major bullet in the chamber, other shots will be fired at Senate Democrats’ trustworthiness.
“They have a credibility problem that has been exposed by multiple broken promises about ObamaCare. That credibility problem goes beyond the unpopular healthcare law, it expands to broken promises about the economy, about independence from a very unpopular president,” she said.
“Once the case is laid out, voters will have a difficult time believing anything that Mary Landrieu, Kay Hagan, or Mark Begich say.”
Chipping away at that trust has been a major focus of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a conservative group backed by the Koch brothers that has been dumping millions of dollars into Senate races across the country.
Many of the AFP’s ads have included Democrats echoing Obama’s promise that “if you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it” — and PolitiFact’s designation that it was 2013’s “Lie of the Year.” A number feature individuals who lost coverage and are residents of the states in question. They attack the Democrats who voted for the healthcare law as untrustworthy.
One AFP ad running in Louisiana shows Obama promising people would be able to keep their plans, and Landrieu echoing Obama’s remarks. “Now, Louisianans are finding out that they lied,” the ad says.
Other ads are targeted toward a crucial voting demographic, featuring women accusing the senators of misleading them.
“Kay Hagan told us if you liked your insurance plan and your doctors you could keep them. That just wasn’t true,” a woman says in an AFP ad that is running in North Carolina.
“I trusted the president and Senator Begich. Lots of promises were made to pass ObamaCare. They knew the real truth,” says a woman in an AFP ad hitting Begich that came out late last year. “How can I ever trust him again?”
Democrats say Republicans are following the same plan that led them to missing out on a Senate majority in 2010 and 2012: a near-exclusive focus on ObamaCare with little else.
In 2010, anger against ObamaCare helped fuel the GOP takeover of the House, but Democrats won a number of competitive Senate races despite the national climate. This year, Republicans need to pick up six seats to win control of the upper chamber, and with a difficult map for Democrats that runs through red states, they think their silver bullet will be more effective.
But Democrats insist too much emphasis on the issue is risky, especially as problems with the law’s implementation are getting fixed and they can tout benefits people are getting from the law.
“They think they can ride to the majority on a one-trick pony... They were cookie-cutter ads last time, just like they are today,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Canter said.
“We’re going to define a contrast between them and their opponent. Each of our candidates are articulating how they put the interests of their constituents and their states ahead of the national party when it comes to key economic priorities.”
Democrats have also been responding by touting their own frustration with the ObamaCare rollout — Landrieu ran an ad featuring her anger at Obama for breaking his promise and pushing for changes to the law — and by pivoting to attacks on the GOP over healthcare.
“The Landrieu ad clearly communicated her frustration about this and showed what she was doing to address the problem and fix the issue,” said one Democratic strategist.
Pryor’s newest ads attack Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) for his Medicare views, hitting him for his support of Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) plan to dramatically change the program.
Other Democrats say that the red-state senators need to show they are as frustrated with ObamaCare’s problems as the voters, but stress that the flawed law is better than full repeal.
“It is important for Democrats to convey that they too are disappointed and frustrated about what happened but then remind people of why we did healthcare reform in the first place,” said one national strategist. “It’s about establishing that baseline of credibility with voters that are also frustrated and then reminding them why this is important and what it would mean if Republicans repeal the law.”
Republicans say the strategy to undercut Democrats’ credibility with ObamaCare is a key part of their plan, and that the recent Congressional Budget Office report that the law will lead to fewer full-time workers is adding fuel to their fire. North Carolina GOP candidate Thom Tillis is already using the report in a Web video.
Public polling shows that ObamaCare is unpopular, but that voters want to fix rather than repeal it. A recent poll from the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation found 50 percent of Americans hold a negative view of the law, with 34 percent approving of it — but it also indicated that 55 percent say it should be improved, while only 38 percent want it repealed.
Privately, even Republicans admit that focusing too much on the law is a risk.
“It’s our job to point out how Mark Begich and the other Democrats have broken that trust. And if we don’t do that correctly, shame on us,” said one Republican strategist working on a few Senate races.
“But ObamaCare only gets you so far. Nationally that is the challenge for Tom Cotton or Tillis — they’re going to have to find those other issues to show a repeated pattern of lies of their incumbents.”