Special elections offer test for politics of ObamaCare repeal

Special elections offer test for politics of ObamaCare repeal
© Getty

The GOP’s push to repeal and replace ObamaCare has spilled into the special elections in Montana and Georgia, creating showcases for how the healthcare bill could shape the 2018 midterms.

Democrats hoping that the controversial bill’s passage in the House will help them take the lower chamber next year are now looking for any signs of voter pushback in the special elections.

The GOP nominees in both special elections have taken different positions on the bill, which has repeatedly polled at below 30 percent support. In Montana, Greg Gianforte publicly distanced himself, but in leaked audio of a private call, he was supportive of its passage. Meanwhile in Georgia, Karen Handel came out strongly in favor of the bill, which was embraced by President Trump.


“It's hard to say how much one vote matters, but the vote in Congress on the American Health Care Act — that crystallizes liberal opposition to the Trump administration,” said Jeremy Johnson, a political science professor at Carroll College in Helena, Mont.

“Certainly with a special election [in Montana] the Thursday before Memorial Day, it will hurt Republicans if Democratic-leaning voters are more energized.”

With two weeks until Montana’s race, Gianforte, a millionaire tech entrepreneur who unsuccessfully ran for governor last year, took some heat for sending mixed signals on the bill, which narrowly passed the House last week.

Gianforte initially declined to take a stance on the bill, with a spokesman later saying that he “need[s] to know all the facts.” During a call with Washington lobbyists, though, Gianforte played up the bill’s “national significance.”

"The votes in the House are going to determine whether we get tax reform done, sounds like we just passed a healthcare thing, which I’m thankful for, sounds like we’re starting to repeal and replace," Gianforte said on the call, according to The New York Times.

Gianforte’s campaign manager tried to clarify Gianforte’s private remarks, saying that the candidate was “thankful” that the process of repealing ObamaCare has begun while the revised bill is still waiting on a Congressional Budget Office score.

Democrat Rob Quist’s campaign seized on Gianforte’s private comments, saying in a statement that voters “want a congressman who’ll shoot straight, not a dishonest politician who says one thing to Montanans and another to the millionaires behind closed doors.”

Quist’s campaign reported raising $550,000 in the four days since Gianforte’s remarks, bringing his fundraising total to more than $3.7 million.

Quist’s campaign has also targeted Gianforte over a Friday campaign event with Vice President Pence, saying the two have an anti-abortion record and want to defund Planned Parenthood.

“I think both sides are seeing this race as a potential referendum on what the healthcare reform that was recently passed by the House means politically,” said a Montana Republican familiar with the race.

“The Democrats are smelling blood more than they thought maybe before," the Republican added. "They’re anxious to at least test it out and see what happens here in Montana and if that healthcare bill really is a problem.”

Republicans in the state, however, are defending Gianforte, arguing that he was praising the steps taken to start the repeal and replacement of ObamaCare instead of the bill itself.

“There’s almost more of a risk of the Republican base getting disillusioned if nothing got done [on healthcare],” the Montana Republican said, calling the hype over Gianforte’s comments “a tad overblown.”

The back-and-forth on the bill comes in the final weeks of the May 25 election. Recent polls reflect that the race is tightening as Quist, a local folk musician, now polls within single digits of his GOP opponent. Both parties and affiliated outside groups are continuing to flood the airwaves with ads.

In Georgia, Republican nominee Handel has been far stauncher in her support for the repeal bill. Handel’s campaign has said that she would have voted for the bill if she was in Congress.

"She believes that the status quo is unacceptable and that this legislation, while not perfect, represents just the first step in replacing Obamacare with patient-centered healthcare," Handel’s campaign said in a statement to the Washington Examiner.

Democrat Jon Ossoff has been just as full-throated in his opposition to the bill, releasing a statement following the bill’s passage that said it “puts Georgians' lives at risk.”

"I strongly oppose this bill, which allows discrimination against Georgians with pre-existing conditions and would make health insurance unaffordable for millions of families,” Ossoff said in a statement.

Handel and Ossoff will compete in a June 20 runoff in the most closely watched special elections of the year. Democrats have looked to mobilize their base for Ossoff, an investigative filmmaker, pouring in resources to make the reliably red district more competitive. While Republican House candidates traditionally have won the district easily, Trump won it by less than 2 points in 2016.

Ossoff's 48 percent came just short of winning the April 18 all-party primary outright, forcing a runoff. Handel, who was one of 11 Republicans in the race, has managed to coalesce the splintered Republican Party behind her since the primary. Recent runoff polls show the race in a dead heat.

While the American Health Care Act plays a role in Montana’s race, some Georgia strategists see the bill having a “minimal impact” on the race and argue that it must head through the Senate to see if it could be a factor in down-ballot races. But they say Ossoff can still use the House passage of the bill against Handel.

“What Jon Ossoff can say is ‘that’s why we need to elect more Democrats to Congress. Had I been in Congress I would have voted against this,’” said Tharon Johnson, a Georgia Democratic strategist.

“What he has to do is have a clear and concise message to 6th District voters about what they are possibly getting with TrumpCare and what they are losing with ObamaCare.”

Still, healthcare has yet to become a major factor in either race. Some political observers note that none of the campaign ads have played up the healthcare bill.

Montana’s ads have largely focused on gun rights as well as attacks on Quist’s past history of financial troubles and Gianforte’s 2009 attempt to restrict public access to a stream near his property.

While Handel’s campaign gears up to run TV ads in the final five weeks of the runoff, ads in Georgia have mostly targeted Ossoff, linking him to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and criticizing his out-of-state campaign contributions.

“It does seem like Democrats are not going full bore on opposition to healthcare in these special elections,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “Both parties seem to be tiptoeing around the healthcare issue because they don't necessarily know how it’s going to play.”

There are less two weeks left in Montana’s race, but Kondik said there’s still more time in the Georgia runoff for the healthcare bill to become a more defining issue.

“It’s possible that perceptions of healthcare will be different” by the June runoff, he said.

Ben Kamisar contributed.