'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 SandersDemocrats urge Biden to commute sentences of 4K people on home confinement Briahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' Sanders 'disappointed' in House panel's vote on drug prices MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenFederal Reserve officials' stock trading sparks ethics review Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack 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 TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington France pulls ambassadors to US, Australia in protest of submarine deal 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 GardnerProtecting the outdoors: Three cheers for America's best idea Ex-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Biden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program 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 BidenHouse Democrat threatens to vote against party's spending bill if HBCUs don't get more federal aid Overnight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Haitians stuck in Texas extend Biden's immigration woes 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 McSallyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by AT&T - Senate passes infrastructure bill, budget resolution; Cuomo resigns Schumer, Tim Scott lead as Senate fundraising pace heats up GOP group launches million ad campaign pressing Kelly on filibuster 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 SchumerChuck SchumerBiden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week CEOs urge Congress to raise debt limit or risk 'avoidable crisis' If .5 trillion 'infrastructure' bill fails, it's bye-bye for an increasingly unpopular Biden 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 BookerDOJ announces agencywide limits on chokeholds and no-knock entries Fighting poverty, the Biden way Top Senate Democrats urge Biden to take immediate action on home confinement program MORE (D-N.J.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandHochul tells Facebook to 'clean up the act' on abortion misinformation after Texas law Democratic senators request probe into Amazon's treatment of pregnant employees The FBI comes up empty-handed in its search for a Jan. 6 plot 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 ConwayPsaki defends move to oust Trump appointees from military academy boards Defense & National Security: The post-airlift evacuation struggle Conway and Spicer fire back at White House over board resignation requests 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 SchatzHotel workers need a lifeline; It's time to pass The Save Hotel Jobs Act Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by The American Petroleum Institute — Scientists potty train cows to cut pollution Conservation group says it will only endorse Democrats who support .5T spending plan 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.”