WASHINGTON -- The first in a series of occasional stories exploring the policy, the politics and the people driving the 2014 elections.
Remember way back when, in October 2013, when the government shutdown was going to be disastrous for Republicans in the next elections? Now health care is dominant, flipping the table on Democrats who have the added burden of President Barack Obama’s declining popularity.
The botched rollout of healthcare.gov, delays of key provisions, public confusion, unrelenting Republican opposition and a false promise by Obama have set the tone for the 2014 midterm elections, lifting GOP chances of taking the Senate and retaining control of the House.
The pace is being set in South Florida, where a deeply-financed conservative group, Americans for Prosperity, is already running TV ads against Democratic Reps. Patrick Murphy of Jupiter and Joe Garcia of Miami, linking them to the health care law and the president’s stumbles.
Murphy and Garcia, elected in 2012 and considered among the most vulnerable in the country, were among 39 Democrats who broke with their party this month to back a GOP proposal that would allow insurers to sell plans that do not meet Obamacare standards, a move other Democrats said was another attempt to undermine the law.
“I’m keeping the president’s word. The president said ‘If you like your health care, you can keep it,’ ” Garcia said, denying he was seeking political cover. About 27 percent of the people in his district are uninsured.
“To me it’s the right thing to do,” Murphy said. “There’s no question that it’s not a perfect piece of legislation. Let’s focus on the tweaks. That’s where the focus needs to be, how to get it right.”
But the fixes and the continued rollout of the complex law will keep it at the forefront through the next election. It will be amplified by a coming Republican onslaught outlined in a playbook of talking points and social media strategies distributed to House members.
“Democrats should be worried,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “Required disclaimer: Of course a lot can and will happen in the next 11 months, but this is what the environment looks like today.”
Six Senate seats
In the Senate, where Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take control, the field was already tilted against a number of Democrats seeking re-election because they come from GOP-leaning states. Recent polling shows trouble for Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who is trying to change the focus with ads accusing his GOP opponent of supporting cuts to Medicare and Social Security.
The reversal in fortune is striking.
The October government shutdown, caused by a fight over health care, resulted in waves of bad publicity for Republicans. Then came problems with the website for enrolling in Obamacare and Obama’s apology for misleading people who saw their current plans canceled.
A CNN poll released Tuesday showed the GOP with a 49 percent to 47 percent edge when registered voters were asked to pick between a generic Democrat or Republican congressional candidate. A month ago, Democrats had an 8-percentage-point advantage.
“The latest Republican assault on Obamacare has proven to be dangerously effective,” the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wrote in a fundraising solicitation on Tuesday that cited the CNN poll. “If we don’t respond to Republican smears with the facts right now, the damage to Obamacare AND our chances in 2014 could be irreversible.”
An early indicator of the national mood will be the special election in Pinellas County, where candidates are seeking to replace the late Rep. C.W. Bill Young, a Republican. The district has gotten more competitive and voters backed Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Democrat Alex Sink said she decided to run because of the government shutdown, hoping to tap voter disgust with partisanship. Republicans are trying to tie her to health care. Sink, like the South Florida Democrats, said she supports the law but thinks changes should be made.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll in Florida showed voters oppose the Affordable Care Act 54 percent to 39 percent and 44 percent of voters said they think it will make their health care worse in the next year. Couple that with Obama’s 40 percent approval rate, matching his all-time lowest score in Florida, and Sink looks less formidable against lesser-known Republicans.
Dilemma for Dems
The 2010 midterm election ended as this one is beginning.
The health care law had just been approved, with no Republican votes, and the GOP helped stir public opposition, resulting in a historic 63-seat gain in the House. Obama said he had taken a “shellacking.”
Democratic leaders say they will not hide from the issue this time, though votes such as Murphy’s and Garcia’s indicate a disconnect.
“Democrats will run on the Affordable Care Act and win,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, and chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, recently said.
The enrollment website has gradually gotten better for users and Democrats are eagerly touting stories of people who have been helped by the law, either getting insurance for the first time or getting better coverage than they had.
Last week, Democrats launched a social media campaign to highlight the many times Republicans have tried to “sabotage” the law, casting them as obstructionists who want to return to a broken health care system that favored insurers.
“Democratic leaders have to keep selling,” said Nathan L. Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “They’ve put so much effort into it, they’ve lost so much because of it, they have to keep making the case.”
Even as the picture improves, there are potential pitfalls as the law is implemented. “There are several shoes yet to drop,” said Gail Wilensky, an economist and former director of Medicare and Medicaid under President George H.W. Bush.
She cited how some people will soon realize they cannot keep their doctor due to more restrictive networks some insurers have formed. Also more people will see that their rates have gone up, even as others see savings. People who do not get insurance will face penalties, which start small but grow. And next year small businesses have to start providing insurance for employees, though the marketplace for that has been delayed. Large employers already got a one-year delay from the requirement to provide insurance.
“It’s not like we didn’t have a real problem, but you have to be careful when you make statements that are very strong, explicit, easy to understand that aren’t true,” Wilensky said.
GOP’s Miami target
Garcia, the Democrat from Miami, has been a GOP target since he was elected in the wake of a scandal that befell the Republican occupant of the seat, David Rivera.
He professed not to worry about the Americans for Prosperity TV ad running against him. “They spelled my name right and pronounced it right. A year before the election that’s called name recognition,” he said.
But Garcia’s voting history suggests someone concerned about being too closely associated with the law and the president. Earlier this year he was one of 22 Democrats (Murphy included) to join Republicans in voting for a bill that would have delayed for one year the mandate requiring people to have insurance.
“Clearly the Obamacare rollout has been, to say the least, a bad reflection of what comes ahead,” Garcia said. “I am tremendously worried, not about my political future. Health care should be a right in America, not a privilege.”