'Medicare for All' complicates Democrats' pitch to retake Senate

The divide over health care among Democratic presidential candidates is raising fears the party might turn an issue that was a key winner in the House midterms into a liability in next year's Senate races.

Democratic Senate candidates have been planning to borrow heavily from the playbook used by House Democrats in 2018, when the party won back the chamber in large part because of a pledge to protect ObamaCare against Republican attempts to kill the 2010 law.

Democrats are attempting to replicate that success with a push to take the majority in the Senate during an election year when they will face a more favorable map than the midterms. Republicans must defend 22 seats compared to the 12 held by Democrats.

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But worries are rising that the bitter dispute among White House hopefuls over the direction of health care will weigh on Democrats and give a boost to GOP incumbents.

Progressive presidential candidates like Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersPoll: Support for Sanders among college students reaches highest level since April The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy Native American advocates question 2020 Democrats' commitment MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren unveils Native American policy plan Poll: Support for Sanders among college students reaches highest level since April Obama has taken active interest in Biden's campaign: report MORE (D-Mass.) are backing an ambitious "Medicare for All" plan, while some centrists say the proposal is akin to repealing ObamaCare.

In doing so, strategists warn that moderates are using language that is essentially playing into the hands of President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren unveils Native American policy plan Live-action 'Mulan' star spurs calls for boycott with support of Hong Kong police Don't let other countries unfairly tax America's most innovative companies MORE and other Republicans.

“That kind of rhetoric is very, very harmful,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist. “It illustrates the divide in the party, and I think this whole debate is confusing people.”

Democrats are hoping to stay unified on health care in Colorado and Arizona, where they’re pushing to unseat vulnerable Republican senators by tying them to the Trump administration’s efforts to undo the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

In Colorado, a crowded field of Democrats is battling it out to determine who will challenge Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy Colorado candidates vying to take on Gardner warn Hickenlooper they won't back down Hickenlooper ends presidential bid MORE (R), one of the most vulnerable GOP senators up for reelection next year in a state that has increasingly favored Democrats in statewide contests.

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His potential challengers are hitting him on his record of voting to repeal ObamaCare and for not speaking out against an administration-backed lawsuit aimed at overturning the health care law.

But Gardner has deflected those efforts by highlighting the Medicare for All debate, mirroring language used by former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenPoll: Support for Sanders among college students reaches highest level since April Obama has taken active interest in Biden's campaign: report The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy MORE, the front runner in the Democratic presidential primary who has compared Medicare for All to repealing ObamaCare.

“The Democrats want to repeal and replace ObamaCare with socialized medicine,” Gardner told The Hill. “This is a leap to the left as the Democrats in the state of Colorado and nationally try to out-socialism each other. I think voters are going to reject that.”

Single-payer has proven unpopular in Colorado. Voters in Colorado widely rejected a single-payer ballot initiative three years ago, 79 percent to 21 percent.

But most of Gardner’s challengers don’t support Medicare for All, which calls for eliminating private insurers.

Rachel Petri, a spokeswoman for former state Sen. Mike Johnston, one of the top fundraisers in the race, said Johnston “does not plan to take away private insurance for anybody" but supports a "Medicare for all who want it" approach that allows anyone to buy into the program. 

“He thinks that you can offer the public option while still allowing that flexibility for folks to keep their health care that they have if they like it,” Petri said. “At the end of the day, all of the Democratic presidential candidates and all of the Senate primary candidates here in Colorado support universal coverage, and they are unified on that. People have different paths to it.”

One area where Democrats are hoping to draw a bright line between themselves and Republicans is the Trump administration’s support for a lawsuit brought by a group of GOP-led states that argue ObamaCare is unconstitutional because Congress repealed the penalty for people without insurance. 

The lawsuit, which is awaiting action in a federal appeals court, aims to overturn the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in its entirety.

Asked if he supported the lawsuit, Gardner replied: “That’s the court’s decision. If the Democrats want to stand for an unconstitutional law, I guess that’s their choice.”

Republicans, including Gardner, have said they will provide protections for people with pre-existing conditions if the courts overturn the ACA. But Democrats argue the GOP proposals fall short of the protections enshrined in the 2010 law.

In Arizona, where Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyEx-FBI official names right-wing extremism one of the biggest security challenges for 2020 GOP senator eyes closing loophole to make domestic terrorism a federal crime Gun control activists set to flex muscle in battle for Senate MORE (R) is likely to face former astronaut Mark Kelly in November 2020, the National Republican Senatorial Committee paid for billboard ads earlier this year accusing him of remaining “silent” as 3 million “Arizonans would lose their health insurance,” even though Kelly had already said he opposed Medicare for All. 

"We should be able to provide access to affordable health care for everybody, but I am not in favor for the 156 million of us that get our health care through our employer to make that go away," he said in April.

Kelly instead supports a public option.

Republicans are likely to frame that approach as a gateway to Medicare for All.

“That would make it incredibly difficult for private insurance to compete, and it’s a fast track to what the ultimate goal is: Medicare for All,” a Republican strategist told The Hill.

The issue is likely to pop up in other competitive Senate races, like in Alabama, where Medicare for All opponent Sen. Doug Jones (D) is fighting to keep his seat in a red state.

The party’s division over health care has Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerColorado candidates vying to take on Gardner warn Hickenlooper they won't back down Trump ahead of New Hampshire speech: Lewandowski would be 'fantastic' senator Hickenlooper ends presidential bid MORE (D-N.Y.) focusing his party on an area of consensus: protecting ObamaCare.

Senate Democrats plan to force a floor vote on health care that would give Democrats another opportunity hit vulnerable Republicans like Gardner on pre-existing conditions protections.

“Republicans campaigned on protecting Americans with pre-existing conditions, but they’re silent when the Trump administration sues to undo the whole ACA,” Schumer told reporters last week, referring to the GOP lawsuit. “This vote will be a test.”

Republicans say they aren’t worried, arguing the debate has since shifted to Medicare for All.

“It’s going to be difficult for [Senate] Democrats to run on ObamaCare when the loudest voices in the party aren’t talking about it,” the Republican strategist said.

During last week’s Democratic presidential primary debates in Detroit, almost a full hour was dedicated to discussing and dissecting Medicare for All. Only two presidential candidates — Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerSteve King to Gillibrand: Odds of me resigning same as yours of winning presidential nomination We need a climate plan for agriculture 2020 Democrats urge Israel to reverse decision banning Omar, Tlaib visit MORE (D-N.J.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandSteve King to Gillibrand: Odds of me resigning same as yours of winning presidential nomination The Hill's Morning Report — Recession fears climb and markets dive — now what? King incites furor with abortion, rape and incest remarks MORE (D-N.Y.) — briefly mentioned the ACA lawsuit.

The White House has also taken notice.

“We've noticed with some bit of delight and irony that the Democrats seem way past ObamaCare at this point,” White House senior counselor Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayTrump health chief: Officials actively 'working on' ObamaCare replacement plan Campaign aide: Trump asking questions shared by 'millions of Americans' with Epstein conspiracy theory Former acting solicitor general: 'Literally unfathomable' that Trump would retweet conspiracy theory about Epstein death MORE told reporters Wednesday.

"They're all just marching toward socialized medicine, government-run health care, wrapped up with something called Medicare for All, which basically means less Medicare for seniors. So if they're not talking about ObamaCare, why should we be?"

The rift among White House contenders is frustrating some Senate Democrats.

“I understand the need for candidates in a competitive situation to not emphasize areas of agreement, but we still want to win a general election, and the most effective way to the general election was making absolutely crystal clear: Democrats are about protecting and expanding health care and Republicans are dedicated to taking it away,” said Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel Schatz'Medicare for All' complicates Democrats' pitch to retake Senate Criminal justice reform should extend to student financial aid Booker, Durbin and Leahy introduce bill to ban death penalty MORE (D-Hawaii).

Democrats argue voters aren’t likely to be distracted by the Medicare for All debate.

A Morning Consult poll conducted July 25–27 found that voters trust Democrats more than Republicans when it comes to health care by a 9 point margin.

The same poll found that health care is the third most important issue among registered voters who participate in general elections, and it’s the No. 1 issue for primary voters.

“We're hitting them on their voting records and they're grasping at straws trying to find some angle to push back on health care because they know they’re losing on the issue,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesperson Stewart Boss.

“This is an area where Democrats have a clear and commanding advantage, and the Republican agenda to repeal the health care law and gut protections for pre-existing conditions remains toxic with voters across the country.”