GOP challengers in conservative districts are seizing on Rep. Gene Taylor’s (D-Miss.) recent endorsement of healthcare repeal to question why their Democratic opponents haven’t done the same.
Thirty-four House Democrats bucked party leadership in March to oppose the new healthcare reform law, but Taylor stands alone in the caucus in taking the more aggressive step of lending his name to repeal.
“That is a winning argument for us in a lot of districts,” said Andy Sere, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Kristi Noem, the Republican challenger in South Dakota, certainly thinks so. She points to Taylor’s move as evidence that Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) — who voted against the bill but opposes GOP repeal efforts — hasn’t gone far enough to establish her anti-reform bona fides.
Herseth Sandlin “has tried to have it both ways when it comes to Obama-Care,” Noem said in a statement.
Noem’s campaign launched an ad this week that includes a vow to “repeal government-mandated healthcare.”
Similar arguments are popping up in other contests.
In North Carolina, Harold Johnson — the Republican challenging Rep. Larry Kissell (D) — said Kissell’s “no” vote on reform is insufficient. “He did not stop ObamaCare from advancing to the floor,” Johnson spokesman Bryan Holladay said in an e-mail, “and will not work to repeal the bill.”
In another North Carolina contest, the campaign of Republican Ilario Pantano this week accused Rep. Mike McIntyre (D) of “being given a pass” in his opposition to the bill, because he hasn’t joined Taylor in signing the Republican discharge petition that would force a floor vote on repeal.
Charles Thompson, the Republican running against Rep. Dan Boren (D) in Oklahoma, said Wednesday that, by itself, Boren’s opposition to healthcare reform is “entirely too weak.”
“I will definitely sign it,” Thompson said of the discharge petition in a phone interview, “because I want to see the healthcare law repealed.”
And in Taylor’s home state of Mississippi, Rep. Travis Childers (D) — yet another “no” vote — is running into similar criticisms from GOP challenger Alan Nunnelee. “It’s definitely an issue,” said Nunnelee spokesman Morgan Baldwin.
The controversy swirls around Taylor’s decision last week to endorse a discharge petition, offered by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), that would force a vote on King’s healthcare repeal bill.
Taylor explained his move in a one-sentence statement.
“I didn’t vote for it, people don’t want it, and the taxpayers cannot afford it,” he said.
Still, the move generated headlines because of the politics of the matter: crossing the aisle to force a vote on legislation that would upend one of your own party’s signature legislative achievements. Discharge petitions almost never succeed, but they can alienate members from their party leaders.
Taylor signed the petition without giving a heads-up to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) or Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), according to House leadership aides.
Michael A. Needham, CEO of Heritage Action, a branch of the Heritage Foundation, said Taylor’s endorsement “provides political cover for other Democrats to break with Nancy Pelosi and support repeal.”
King’s discharge petition, Needham said in an e-mail, offers Democrats “the opportunity to demonstrate their independence to their constituents.”
On Wednesday, King said in an interview that Taylor’s endorsement “absolutely” makes it more difficult for the other Democrats in tough races not to follow suit.
A glance at the looming elections helps explain why some conservatives hope to make Taylor’s endorsement an issue in November. Of the 34 House Democrats who voted no on healthcare reform in March, 27 represent districts seen as the competitive, according to The Cook Political Report. In 11 of those races, Cook rates the contest a toss-up, while nine others lean Democratic.
Taylor’s contest is not competitive, according to Cook.
Requests for comment from the offices of McIntyre, Kissell and Childers were not returned Wednesday. Boren could not be reached for comment.
Some political experts — even some conservatives — downplay the significance of Taylor’s action, arguing that the distinction between opposing the bill and endorsing repeal is likely too nuanced to move many voters.
Joseph Antos, a health policy expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, noted that most voters have never heard of discharge petitions. So, Antos said, the Democrats who voted against the reform law can simply lean on their “no” votes to prove their independence.
Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University and a Brookings Institution scholar, argued that threatened Democrats might be inclined to endorse the petition “if the question becomes one of where you stand on repeal versus where you stand on health reform.”
Currently, 172 members, including Taylor, have endorsed King’s discharge petition.
Health policy experts expect the push for repeal to fizzle out after the election, as Republicans — widely expected to win back control of the House — shift their strategy to one of scaling back the more controversial provisions of the reform law.
“The real fight,” Princeton University congressional historian Julian Zelizer said, “is going to be in the backrooms of Capitol Hill.”