Senate candidates queasy on healthcare

Senate candidates on both sides of the aisle have avoided embracing their party’s signature healthcare reform policies, a sign that few want to campaign on such a controversial issue.

Many Democratic candidates have sought distance from President Obama’s healthcare overhaul and a number of Republicans have dodged taking a stance on Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) proposed Medicare reforms — even after Ryan and House GOP leaders tweaked those reforms to include bipartisan policies suggested by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

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This comes as healthcare has re-emerged as a hot topic: Obama’s law just hit its two-year anniversary; the Supreme Court is holding hearings on whether it is constitutional; and Ryan introduced a revamped version of his budget from last year that House Republicans are likely to vote on later this week. 

The Hill surveyed Senate candidates in both parties to see where they stand on these issues. Democrats were asked how they would have voted on Obama’s healthcare law, while Republicans were asked how they would vote on the Medicare provisions of the House Republican budget proposed by Ryan.

Many candidates’ campaigns ducked and dodged, or didn’t respond at all.

When asked where former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle (R) stood on the Ryan provisions, a spokesman emailed her statements on healthcare from the website that called for “a long-term Medicare system that provides future beneficiaries with early and advance notice of changes” but did not mention Ryan’s provisions. Numerous emails and phone calls asking for clarification were not returned.

Former Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) praised Ryan for his proposals, but stopped short of embracing them.

“While I may not agree with everything in his proposal, I give Congressman Ryan credit for trying to have a serious debate about some very important issues,” Wilson said in a statement sent to The Hill.

Her campaign did not respond when asked if that meant she would vote for the plan.

Republicans have blasted Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) for previously lauding Obama’s law, but criticizing aspects of it since she joined the race.

“There are some good things in that law, and there are some serious problems with it that need to be fixed,” Heitkamp said Tuesday in a statement.

She praised parts of the bill while criticizing the individual mandate, but declined to state definitively how she would have voted.

When former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) announced her support for Obama’s reforms in 2010, she quoted Richard Carmona (D), the former surgeon general now running for Senate, saying that the bill wasn’t perfect, but moved the country closer to the proactive healthcare system it sorely needs.

Carmona spokesman Andy Barr said that as a physician, Carmona “has always believed we need comprehensive and affordable access to healthcare for all Americans.”

But pressed on whether that constituted a statement of support for the law, Carmona’s campaign was noncommittal.

“Dr. Carmona believes the Affordable Care Act was a good start after decades of failed attempts to provide more comprehensive and affordable care,” Barr said. “As a senator, he will work to make improvements to our healthcare system, including a stronger emphasis on preventive medicine.”

Ohio state Treasurer Josh Mandel, the Republican nominee to unseat Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), pivoted from an inquiry about how he would vote to an attack on his opponent.

“One thing I know for certain is that we need to reform Medicare to save it from the irresponsible policies of Sherrod Brown, who has borrowed trillions and run up an unsustainable amount of debt that threatens to bankrupt both Medicare and Social Security,” Mandel said in a statement to The Hill.

Almost all the Senate candidates who embraced their party’s legislation are in contested primaries where party loyalty matters more now than in the general election: Susan Bysiewicz (D-Conn.); Hector Balderas (D-N.M.); former Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who has campaigned with Ryan; and three of the four Republicans running for Senate in Wisconsin, Ryan’s home state; as well as former Sen. George Lemieux (R-Fla.) and Don Stenberg (R-Neb.).

Many other candidates’ campaigns did not respond to multiple requests for comment: Republicans include former Sen. George Allen (Va.) and Jon Bruning (Neb.), and Democrats include former Sen. Bob Kerrey (Neb.). 

Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) campaign likewise did not respond, but her website indicates she supports the Democratic law. Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he supports Obama’s law, which he defended as head of the party.

Former Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) said he would vote against Ryan’s plan — not because it went too far, but because it didn’t go far enough, failing to balance the federal budget until 2040. His primary opponent, Linda McMahon (R), did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Recent polls show both Obama’s and Ryan’s policies are unpopular. A National Journal poll released this week showed that just 28 percent of voters wanted changes to Medicare similar to what Ryan’s plan called for, while 66 percent opposed them. In that same poll, a narrow plurality opposed Obama’s law, and two-thirds opposed the individual mandate portion.

Given the prominence of the issue, candidates are likely to have to give a definitive answer soon or later — either in debates or on the campaign trail.

One thing they have been relentless about is criticizing the other party’s policies while staying relatively quiet on their own. 

“Both sides have figured out how to be on offense on Medicare. Democrats will use attack lines on the Ryan budget, but Republicans still have an opportunity to make attacks on the president’s healthcare bill,” said Brian Walsh, who heads the Congressional Leadership Fund, a GOP-aligned super-PAC. “It’s kind of a preview of the fall right now.”

Strategists in both parties admit that their side’s policies offer political fodder and both say that — especially in close races — candidates would be smart to avoid embracing complex bills until they have to vote for them.