ObamaCare gives incumbent Democrats the jitters

The Affordable Care Act is casting a shadow over Democrats’ chances in Senate battleground states, putting pressure on vulnerable Senate Democrats to distance themselves from the law’s clumsy rollout.

Five vulnerable Democratic incumbents who this week called for extending the law’s enrollment period and delaying penalties for not signing up on time come from states where voters hold unfavorable views of the law.

Some Democratic strategists, however, argue the issue is not as potent as Republicans think and predict it could boomerang on conservatives who have pushed for a full repeal of the law without offering detailed proposals to replace it.

Republican-sponsored and independent polls in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Hampshire and North Carolina show the law is significantly more unpopular than popular.

Internal National Republican Senatorial Committee polling in New Hampshire from late September showed 40 percent of respondents approve of the law compared to 54 percent who disapprove. Within those categories, 47 percent strongly disapprove and only 27 percent strongly approve.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) asked Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius in a letter dated Oct. 22 to extend the open enrollment period beyond the current end date of March. 31, 2014.  Shaheen shared her concerns about the law with White House officials in April. She warned then that many small businesses in her home state do not know how to comply with the law.

A Democratic strategist pointed to a New England College poll conducted Oct. 7 - 9 that showed 58 percent of 1063 registered voters in New Hampshire support the Affordable Care Act. 

Internal polling conducted by the NRSC in May showed that only 32 percent of respondents in Alaska support the law while 59 percent oppose it. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who faces a tough re-election, signed Shaheen’s letter to Sebelius and has sponsored legislation to delay ObamaCare’s employer mandate for two years.

Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who are on the Republicans’ 2014 target list, also signed the letter.

An OnMessage survey conducted in mid October for Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) showed that only 33 percent of likely voters in Arkansas favor ObamaCare while 62 percent oppose it.

“It’s theoretically possible for the administration to iron out the kinks of this program and opposition could fade but that seems highly unlikely,” the pollster, Wes Anderson, wrote in a memo to Cotton’s campaign. “It’s far more likely that the issue will remain a serious hurdle for Sen. Pryor all the way through Election Day.”

A poll by Magellan Strategies, a GOP-affiliated firm, found that 60 percent of voters are less likely to support Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) because of her support for ObamaCare. The survey manipulated the answer, however, by noting in its question that the law “increased insurance premiums by 88 percent for people who buy their own health insurance.”

An Elon University Poll from September found that half of respondents believe ObamaCare will make the healthcare situation worse in North Carolina and only 27 percent of independents think it will make it better.

Already one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) — who is not up for re-election next year — has said he will co-sponsor legislation with Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) to delay the mandate for a year.

Senate Democratic aides say Republicans have exaggerated the split in their caucus. They argue that extending the enrollment period is a minor change that would not undermine the structure of ObamaCare.

“Democrats are not divided on ACA, some just want to be proactive about making clear they think there are issues that need to be tweaked,” said a senior Democratic aide. “No one thinks it’s perfect, but no one wants to repeal it or do anything major that could harm its long-term prospects for success.”

The aide said Senate Democratic leaders, however, do not plan to support efforts to delay penalties beyond what the administration has already announced.

Democrats are trying to turn the issue to their advantage by drawing a bright line between their proposals to improve it and Tea Party-fueled calls to repeal the law entirely, including popular provisions such as the one allowing children to remain on their parents health insurance until age 26.

“Only 30 percent of the public supports the Republican position calling for a full and total repeal of the law and a continuation of the same types of partisan fights that shut down the government,” said Matt Canter, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

NRSC spokesman Brad Dayspring said public opinion in battleground states is what counts most.

“When you go into each of these key 2014 states people are overwhelmingly opposed to ObamaCare,” he said. “They know full well just how unpopular ObamaCare is in these states. That’s why the DSCC was encouraging their candidates to back away from the law and start supporting extending the enrollment period.”