ObamaCare expected to dominate Arizona Senate battle

ObamaCare expected to dominate Arizona Senate battle

 

Rep. Ann KirkpatrickAnn KirkpatrickDemocrats face voters clamoring for impeachment Arizona Dems ask DHS to appoint 'crisis coordinator' at border Democrats introduce bill to let 'Dreamers' work for Congress MORE’s challenge to Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain clashes with Joy Behar as the 'sacrificial Republican' on 'The View' The DNC's climate problems run deep Trump's health care focus puts GOP on edge MORE is emerging as an early litmus test on ObamaCare’s power in the 2016 election cycle.

Kirkpatrick lost reelection in 2010 after casting a vote for ObamaCare, but won her seat back two years later while embracing the law. She won a third term in 2014.

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Republicans are promising to make ObamaCare the center of the 2016 fight as McCain, who is likely to face a primary challenge to get to the general election, seeks to win a sixth term.

“I’d wager that by the time the race is done, Republicans are going to make sure voters think her middle name is ObamaCare,” said GOP strategist Matthew Benson.

Democrats are sounding a confident note that Kirkpatrick can prevail, and they say she won’t run away from ObamaCare.

“Ann is not going to back down from her support of ObamaCare. They can throw at her what they want, but she’s not going to reverse her course,” said Barbara Lubin, communications director for the Arizona Democratic Party.

But there are signs that Kirkpatrick is treading cautiously.

In the video kicking off her campaign on Tuesday, she lists her top priorities – the economy, education, farms and ranches, veterans, national debt and Social Security. Her only mention of healthcare involves preserving Medicare.

Many political observers have expected the Republican focus on ObamaCare to fade in an election cycle that GOP candidates say is likely to revolve around national security and the economy.

At least 17 million people have signed up for ObamaCare or new Medicaid coverage under the new law, and polls have suggested a gradual uptick in its favorability.

But with unpopular ObamaCare provisions such as the employer mandate going into effect next year, other campaign consultants expect the law to become a more toxic topic in 2016.

The election could also be reshaped by a major Supreme Court ruling next month that threatens to eliminate healthcare subsidies for nearly 8 million people – including 150,000 in Arizona. 

“The shoe’s going to drop this year and next, and it's not going to be pretty,” said Sean Noble, a GOP consultant and former chief of staff for former Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.). 

Now, as Kirkpatrick looks to unseat Sen. John McCain in her first statewide race, political strategists warn that ObamaCare could again be her downfall.

“That’s going to be a huge vulnerability for Ann Kirkpatrick during this election,” added Benson, who previously worked for Arizona’s former Republican Gov. Jan Brewer.

Kirkpatrick has had a mixed history with ObamaCare on the campaign trail.

Most political observers agree that ObamaCare was one of the biggest factors in her loss to Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) in 2010.

But then two years later, Kirkpatrick launched a successful comeback bid that embraced the law even as other moderate Democrats appeared to run away from their vote.

Kirkpatrick was pummeled by ads from the National Republican Congressional Committee that slammed her being “still loyal” to ObamaCare. Still, she picked up more votes than her last run in 2008.

“They just hammered and hammered on that, and she won with more votes than usual," added Lubin.

But campaign experts warn that a statewide race would be different.

In her home district, people are more likely to receive benefits under ObamaCare: The relatively poor district includes more Native Americans than any other district and is also home to one of the state’s largest universities.

Noble, the Arizona GOP consultant, said that Kirkpatrick would have a far harder time touting her support for ObamaCare in the rest of the state.

“That [support] is not going to translate well to a state-wide campaign,” Noble said. “There’s no question that she’s going to keep it quiet – not make that a central part of the campaign – because she knows that that will hurt her on the statewide ballot.”

Kirkpatrick’s support for ObamaCare is complicated in a state like Arizona, which has experienced a fierce inter-party brawl over the law’s Medicaid expansion.

In her final year as governor, Brewer caused an uproar when she sidestepped many lawmakers from her own party to accept millions of federal dollars to expand Medicaid.

Her actions — which created coverage for 300,000 people — spurred three dozen lawmakers from her own party to file a lawsuit, which is still pending in court.

The Medicaid expansion was broadly supported in polls conducted by Brewer’s office as she sought to implement the program. But whenever “ObamaCare” was included in one of the questions, “support fell off the table,” Benson said.

“That term and that issue are going to be a huge problem" for Kirkpatrick, he added.

The law could become even more poisonous for 2016 candidates who may also have to deal with the potential aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision in King v. Burwell.

The high stakes ruling could erase tax subsidies in every state that uses the federal health exchange, including Arizona.

Gov. Doug Ducey (R) has already passed a law that effectively bans the state from setting up its own exchange to keep the subsidies flowing, a highly controversial move that throws the law’s future in Arizona in flux.

"I'm not in favor of a state exchange. I've been outspoken on this issue and what my opinion is of ObamaCare and that I'm no fan of it," he told reporters last month.