By Reid Wilson - 10/28/09 10:12 PM EDT
Democratic incumbents found angry crowds at town hall meetings on healthcare, but Republican candidates discovered a sharp political tool for their fledgling campaigns.
Several GOP challengers held their own healthcare town hall meetings in August, and these candidates, who often struggle for media coverage, found themselves winning headlines and supporters.
It worked so well that they’re continuing to hold meetings, with encouragement from the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).
The events, GOP candidates told The Hill, have given campaigns an opportunity to mine sign-in sheets for volunteers and contributors. Several said their events generated invitations to speak before other organizations. Eventually, they said, attendees will become some of their best supporters.
Attorney Ethan Hastert (R), who is challenging Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), said the town hall meetings could translate into votes.
“If they’re involved enough to come out for a town hall, they’re probably going to come out on Election Day,” he said. “It’s good politics, in the right sense of the word.”
In fact, focus on the healthcare issue helped Republicans narrow the disadvantage they face on the generic congressional ballot, according to Jon McHenry, the prominent Republican pollster.
“The narrowing of that gap tracks pretty well with attention being paid to the public option,” McHenry said.
Blake Curd, a state representative and physician facing a tough race against Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.), brought a copy of H.R. 3200 — the measure that inspired the outbursts over the summer — to several town hall meetings. The paper on which the bill was printed weighed 14.5 pounds.
“I wanted to try to help my patients understand what was being proposed, what might happen to them,” Curd said. “At the time, when I started talking about healthcare, I wasn’t even thinking of running for Congress.”
The town hall meetings have also served to set up an early contrast with incumbents, some of whom have not held their own events focused on the volatile issue.
“It was an expression of ideas,” said businessman Eric Wnuck, one of three Republicans running against Rep. Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.). “It was a conversation that Harry Mitchell has not had.”
Mitchell’s office disputes that statement, saying the second-term Democrat has heard from about 30,000 constituents through three tele-town hall meetings, a survey and meetings around the district.
Some Democratic strategists are worried the debate could help Republicans by carving up the Democratic base.
“We have pissed off Democrats, many of whom feel we caved too much; we have frightened independents; and we have energized Republicans to the nth degree,” a Democratic pollster said. “The problem is not just healthcare; rather, it is part of a broader concern about more and bigger government, spending, focus and priorities.”
Meanwhile, the Democratic pollster warned, if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) proposal to let states opt out of a public option on their own passes, the implications could be felt for decades — especially with redistricting right around the corner, set for 2012.
“The thought of pushing the public option to the states to decide is truly one of the worst ideas I have ever encountered. It means that every state will have to engage this debate and will likely lead to disaster for Democrats at the state legislative level — just before reapportionment,” the pollster said.
The GOP is steadfastly opposed to any of the healthcare proposals that have emerged, focusing instead on issues like litigation reform, opening healthcare plans to interstate customers and other options that are highly unlikely to pass a Democratic Congress.
“Voters are definitely saying they want reform, so you’re threading a needle saying, ‘I support reform, but not what the Democratic Congress is talking about,’ ” McHenry said. “It’s completely fine to be against the public option, to be against some of the Medicare cuts, to be against the taxes.”
And a new poll shows that Americans disapprove of the job President Barack Obama is doing on healthcare. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows 43 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the issue, while 48 percent disapprove.
But 72 percent said it is either extremely or quite important to give people a choice between a public plan and a private plan. Meanwhile, just 23 percent of voters approve of the GOP’s handling of the issue, the poll showed.