Dem governor hopefuls see winning issue in Medicaid expansion

Dem governor hopefuls see winning issue in Medicaid expansion
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Democratic candidates for governor in red and purple states are going on the offensive on Medicaid expansion, betting the ObamaCare issue will resonate with voters.

In ads and speeches in states including Wisconsin, Georgia and Florida, Democrats are seizing on the popularity of Medicaid, making it a central part of their campaigns and using it to attack their GOP opponents.

“This is the first time that Democrats have really pushed that issue and have gotten somewhat more defensive responses from Republicans,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll.

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In Georgia, Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams said expanding Medicaid will be her “day one” priority if elected.

“Every year Georgia doesn’t expand Medicaid, we lose $3 billion meant to pay for Georgia’s health-care coverage,” Abrams said in a recent campaign video. “What we can’t afford to do is leave behind Medicaid expansion.”

In Wisconsin, Democrat Tony Evers’s first television ad accused incumbent GOP Gov. Scott Walker of playing politics during his 2016 presidential run by refusing to accept federal money to expand Medicaid and lower the cost of care for families across the state.

“The Walker vulnerability is the amount of federal money left on the table by not taking the expansion. Not taking that money means the state has picked up a big part of the health-care tab it did not need to pick up,” Franklin said.

With the failure of congressional Republicans to repeal ObamaCare last year, advocates see momentum on Medicaid in state capitals. They view these elections as key to breaking through GOP gridlock, and making expansion a reality in states that have so far refused to do so.

“Medicaid is now almost as popular as Medicare, and that’s never been true before. So I’m not surprised Democratic candidates are really going after this in places it hasn’t been expanded,” said Brad Woodhouse, a longtime Democratic party operative and executive director of the advocacy group Protect Our Care.  

On a national level, Democrats see health care as a winning issue, and Medicaid expansion is an example of that.

Republicans, meanwhile, must balance their party’s loathing for ObamaCare with the popularity of Medicaid.

Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have accepted federal money to expand their Medicaid coverage. Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government will pay states no less than 90 percent of the costs to cover people making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

According to a July Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 51 percent of individuals living in non-expansion states said they would like their state to expand Medicaid to cover more low-income uninsured people.

“Republicans are trying to litigate a war they were winning when Obama was in office, but now it leaves them on the defensive,” said Ben Koltun, a senior research analyst at Beacon Policy Advisors.

“Saying no to Medicaid expansion resonates with the most conservative” electorate in the primaries, “but in toss-up states, and even in red states in the general [election], it doesn’t resonate as well as it used to,” Koltun added.

Virginia was the most recent state to join the ranks of expansion in May, after key state GOP lawmakers reached a compromise with Democrats.

Seventeen states have steadfastly refused to expand, but that number could drop in November, as voters in Idaho, Nebraska and Utah will decide in November whether to expand Medicaid via ballot initiatives.

And in states that have already expanded Medicaid, Republican candidates are feeling pressure from Democrats to support the change.

In Michigan, GOP gubernatorial nominee and current Attorney General Bill Schuette recently told The Associated Press he would not undo Medicaid expansion.

“Healthy Michigan is the law,” Schuette said. “It’s not going anywhere.”

His comments are a dramatic departure from when he ran for state attorney general in 2010 and vowed to “fight Obamacare tooth and nail, day-in and day-out.”

In Ohio, GOP gubernatorial candidate and current Attorney General Mike DeWine announced this summer that he would keep the state’s Medicaid expansion. Democrats promptly accused him of flip-flopping on the issue.

DeWine previously said that Medicaid expansion is financially unsustainable. His campaign also attacked his Republican rival during the primary by claiming she supported expanding Medicaid.

Medicaid “has been such a drag on DeWine’s candidacy. He’s paying some lip service to supporting it because it’s such a problem in that race,” Protect Our Care’s Woodhouse said.

Medicaid expansion alone may not be enough of an issue to propel Democrats to victory in red states, but they’re helped by a strong anti-Trump sentiment across the country right now, Koltun said.

In states like Georgia and Florida, “a big thing that’s helping them is they’re facing Trump candidates. So Democrats can appeal to independents, and Medicaid expansion plays well to independents and a good number of [establishment] Republicans as well,” Koltun said.