Republicans have hammered Democrats over ObamaCare for the better half of a decade, riding promises to repeal the law into majorities in both the House and Senate.
But now Democrats plan to turn the tables on the GOP, using the GOP’s failed attempts to repeal ObamaCare as a cudgel in the 2018 midterm elections.
“I think the message is really simple here: As long as Republicans control Congress, your health care is on the chopping block,” said Tyler Law, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Democrats’ campaign arm.
Democrats want to put that issue front and center, arguing that the GOP effort would cause millions more people to lose insurance and hurt sick Americans.
“The Republicans’ toxic health-care agenda that spikes costs, strips coverage for pre-existing conditions and imposes an age tax on older Americans will be the defining issue of the midterms,” said David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC).
“It will drag down Republican Senate candidates in every state,” Bergstein added.
In early May, the House narrowly passed an ObamaCare repeal-and-replace bill in a 217-213 vote.
On Tuesday, Senate Republicans decided against voting by the end of September on a last-ditch effort to repeal the health-care law, acknowledging the measure wouldn’t have passed. The announcement effectively killed the repeal effort for the immediate future, as the fast-track budget maneuver Republicans were using to gut ObamaCare with a simple majority can't be used this year after Sept. 30.
Even without a new GOP-designed health-care system to run against, Democrats believe they have enough ammo to hit Republicans by pointing to the previous repeal attempts, all of which scored badly in approval polls.
“Every one of our targets in the midterms — every single vulnerable Republican — voters know that their health care is less safe if that person is reelected,” Law said, “And that is an incredibly strong message that we will carry through the midterm elections.”
Twenty Republicans, many of whom are centrists hailing from swing states and potential Democratic targets, opposed the bill in the House.
The attack ads have already started.
For instance, the DSCC launched Google full-screen takeover ads in June against Sens. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerDemocrats brace for tough election year in Nevada Democratic poll finds Cortez Masto leading Laxalt by 4 points in Nevada Senate race The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - To vote or not? Pelosi faces infrastructure decision MORE (Nev.), Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeFlake donating unused campaign funds to Arizona nonprofit focused on elections: report Biden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report MORE (Ariz.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOcasio-Cortez goes indoor skydiving for her birthday GOP rallies around Manchin, Sinema McConnell gets GOP wake-up call MORE (Texas), as well as Pandora radio ads against Heller and Flake in July. Another recent effort includes a digital campaign in 12 states attacking Republicans on the “Jimmy Kimmel test,” a phrase coined by Sen. Bill CassidyBill CassidyHillicon Valley — Presented by American Edge Project — Americans blame politicians, social media for spread of misinformation: poll Biden signs bill to strengthen K-12 school cybersecurity Senators gear up for bipartisan grilling of Facebook execs MORE (R-La.) to mean any health-care bill would protect those with pre-existing conditions.
But Republican strategists say their candidates have plenty of material of their own to use against Democrats, arguing that Democrats are responsible for problems in the health-care system.
“To me, it’s like everyone has ammo in this fight,” one Republican strategist said.
Republicans tend to say ObamaCare is a failing law, saying premiums are rising and insurers are exiting the marketplaces. A House Republican strategist said the GOP will attack the recent push by some Democrats and championed by Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders, Manchin escalate fight over .5T spending bill Sanders blames media for Americans not knowing details of Biden spending plan Briahna Joy Gray: Proposals favored by Black voters 'first at the chopping block' in spending talks MORE (I-Vt.) toward a single-payer health-care system. Republicans plan to tie Democrats to Sanders’s plan, pitching it as a government health-care takeover that would cost trillions of dollars and restrict patient choice.
Democrats face a daunting Senate map in the midterms, with 23 of the party’s members up for reelection, plus two seats held by Independents who caucus with the Democrats. In comparison, eight Republicans are defending their seats.
Democrats face a crucial decision picking a message that drives their base to the polls. Health care is tied with the economy as the top issue for voters for the first time in more than three years, according to a new Morning Consult-Politico poll from Sept. 22–24.
In late July, House and Senate Democratic leaders rolled out their “Better Deal” economic agenda, with the first phase including issues like lowering prescription drug costs and reining in corporations.
Health care is a “deeply personal and tangible” issue for voters, said Bergstein, which is a reason he believes the message will resonate across the country. It’s also an economic issue, he said, as it hits voters squarely in their pocketbooks.
During the health-care debate, pro-ObamaCare groups were quick to point out how the bill could impact certain states — particularly Republican states that expanded Medicaid, some of which are represented by vulnerable senators like Heller and Flake.
Yet, Republicans also have another worry to contend with: primary challenges from the right. This week, former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice and conservative firebrand Roy Moore defeated Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangePandemic proves importance of pharmaceutical innovation The Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Trump faces test of power with early endorsements MORE (R-Ala.) after a drawn-out special election primary fight.
“The Club for Growth PAC has met with more primary challengers this cycle than any previous cycle that I’m aware of, and I’ve been at the club since 2003,” Andy Roth, vice president of government affairs for the conservative group, said.
“So there is an appetite definitely to throw these bums out if they don’t do what they said they would,” Roth said, although he noted that passing tax reform could save Republicans in the midterms.
Senate Republicans aren’t calling ObamaCare repeal dead, instead saying the effort will resume after passing tax reform.
On Tuesday, Senate Republicans headed into a closed-door policy lunch unsure if they'd be voting on another repeal bill even though they knew it didn’t have enough votes to pass. Inside the room, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenators preview bill to stop tech giants from prioritizing their own products Democrats fret as longshot candidates pull money, attention Tim Scott takes in .3 million in third quarter MORE (R-S.C.), a main co-sponsor of the latest repeal bill, told his colleagues the effort couldn't simply die even without a vote this week.
"I told the conference today, ‘To me it's not a matter of if — it's now when,'" Graham told reporters.
"But let's say we fail, let's say we continue to fail, you've seen the damage done to the party.”