ObamaCare becomes political weapon for Democrats

ObamaCare becomes political weapon for Democrats
© Greg Nash

ObamaCare is emerging as a top issue for Democrats as they seek to gain control of Congress in next year's midterm elections. 

Just a year after worries about ObamaCare premiums were seen as a contributing factor in Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits Biden sends 'best wishes' to Clinton following hospitalization The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Jan. 6 panel flexes its muscle MORE's loss, voter concerns about GOP attacks on the health-care law seem to be bolstering Democratic candidates. 

Health care was by far the number one issue in Virginia, where Democrats won races up and down the ballot on Tuesday night with a surprisingly strong showing. Exit polls showed that 39 percent of voters ranked health care as their top issue, with 77 percent of those voters backing Democrat Ralph Northam for governor.   

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Meanwhile, in Maine, voters overwhelmingly supported a ballot initiative to expand Medicaid under ObamaCare, suggesting strong support for increasing health care access to the poor and lower middle class. 

Democrats say the results show the Republican votes this year to repeal ObamaCare are coming back to haunt them. 

“Leading up to the repeal vote there was a lot of hand-wringing from Republican strategists that it could hurt them politically,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist doing work for anti-repeal groups. “Tuesday night proved they were right.”

Rep. John FasoJohn James FasoDemocrats go big on diversity with new House recruits Kyle Van De Water wins New York GOP primary to challenge Rep. Antonio Delgado The most expensive congressional races of the last decade MORE (R-N.Y.), a vulnerable House Republican who voted for the House’s ObamaCare repeal bill, told The Hill the election results Tuesday are a “warning sign for all of us.”

“It means that we've got to get things done and show people progress,” he said.

He touted a bipartisan plan from a group known as the Problem Solvers that would make fixes to ObamaCare. “What I've said all along: We should keep what works and fix what doesn't,” he said. 

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That vulnerable lawmakers like Faso are treading carefully on repeal is a clear sign that the politics of health care have shifted. ObamaCare was long a political liability for Democrats, particularly in the 2010 wave election, but the law’s popularity has grown this year.

A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in October found that 51 percent of the public has a favorable view of the health-care law, compared to 40 percent with an unfavorable view. That is up from an even 45 percent-45 percent split in October 2016.  

Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist, said that for Republicans, “you're playing with dynamite unless you’ve got a near-perfect plan” to replace ObamaCare. 

He said that while he does not expect repeal to come back in Congress before the midterm election, he would advise vulnerable Republicans to take a “wait and see” approach and make sure any health-care plan is right for their district.  

Democrats are eager to leverage their advantage on health care. 

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerHispanic organizations call for Latino climate justice in reconciliation Senate to vote next week on Freedom to Vote Act To Win 2022: Go big on reconciliation and invest in Latinx voters MORE (N.Y.) dared Republicans to include a repeal of ObamaCare’s individual mandate in their tax-reform bill, something they are considering but have not yet done.

“This should be a shot across the bow to our Republican colleagues: Don't mess with health care,” Schumer said of Tuesday’s election results. 

If they do, he said, “they'll be tripling down on the same mistakes they made on health care before.”

“Every poll is showing that people are worried about their health care and Democrats can now win the fight on what will be either the top issue or a top issue for voters in the midterms,” said Ferguson, the Democratic strategist. 

Ferguson said the victories in Virginia and in Maine show that support for Democrats on health care spans different segments of the electorate. In Virginia, college-educated voters responded to the issue, while in Maine, voters without a college degree backed the Medicaid expansion.

Republican Sen. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderMcConnell gets GOP wake-up call The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats return to disappointment on immigration Authorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate MORE (R-Tenn.) said the election results should show the need for his plan to stabilize ObamaCare in the short-term. His effort to do so is bipartisan, in contrast to the GOP repeal bills earlier this year.     

“Health care is certainly on the minds of the American people,” Alexander told reporters. 

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“It was the No. 1 issue in Virginia, Maine expanded Medicaid, and in Tennessee the [premium] rates are up 58 percent because of the Affordable Care Act," he said. "So I think what the American people would expect the present Congress to do is to take some step to avoid chaos and begin to bring premiums down and, fortunately, we have such a step.”

More conservative Republicans, though, don’t want to back down from ObamaCare, saying they promised voters that they would act to repeal the law and improve the health-care system.

In pushing for repeal of the individual mandate, Republican Study Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) told Fox Business, “It allows us to stay on track of fulfilling the promises we made to the American people.” 

O’Connell, the Republican strategist, said lawmakers in deep-red districts could stick to a tougher message on ObamaCare, while vulnerable members take the wait and see approach to a replacement plan. 

But he said ObamaCare is no longer the Democratic liability it once was.

“I do believe it hurts Dems less than it used to,” he said.