Marc Caputo: Charlie Crist’s Obamacare conundrum

03/16/2014 12:00 PM

03/16/2014 10:31 PM

Charlie Crist is in an Obamacare box.

Opposed to Obamacare when he was a Republican, Crist is now a Democrat and is all for the Affordable Care Act.

Such flip-flops and evolutions and pirouettes make Crist’s relationship with the unpopular law one of the most-complicated in the nation.

Now it might be one of the riskiest.

Yet Crist has little choice but to embrace the law right now. Running in a primary against Nan Rich, Crist needs to prove his Democratic bona fides. The Democratic base approves of the law.

“I think it’s been great,” Crist said in a CNN interview last Sunday.

It wasn’t great for Crist’s fellow Democrat Alex Sink, who narrowly lost a special election Tuesday for a congressional seat based in Crist’s home county, Pinellas.

Obamacare wasn’t the only issue in the race. But conservatives made the law a major point.

Gov. Rick Scott is doing the same in the governor’s race. His team Friday released a web ad highlighting Crist’s support for the law and President Barack Obama’s latest backtrack on the law when he admitted some people might not be able to keep their doctors, despite the president’s prior promise.

In the just-ended congressional race, Sink’s advisers acknowledge Obamacare was a political problem. But, they said, polling data indicated she “neutralized” the issue, partly by espousing a “keep-and-fix” approach. She pointed out how the Affordable Care Act helps people with preexisting conditions and seniors with prescription-drug coverage.

Republican David Jolly wanted to repeal the law — a less-popular position than Sink’s, according to many state and national polls. But in senior-heavy Congressional District 13, Obamacare’s cuts to Medicare Advantage did Sink no favors. Nor did President Obama’s false claims that people could keep their doctors and insurance plans if they liked them.

Jolly won.

It’s a good example of the difference between measuring broad popular opinion vs. turning out voters.

“The one thing we do have to reckon with and kind of acknowledge is that the Affordable Care Act was a motivating issue for Republicans to turn out and vote — and less so for Democrats,” said Geoff Garin, Sink’s pollster.

The case isn’t closed on how much the law played into Sink’s defeat. There are no good data.

Compared to the rest of Florida, the congressional district is also older, whiter and more Republican. The white elderly and the GOP are bulwarks of Obamacare opposition.

Polls indicate blacks and Hispanics are far more likely to support the ACA. Polls also show expanding Medicaid, which disproportionately enrolls minorities, is popular as well.

Voters of color will have far more say in the governor’s race next November than in the just-ended special election. In the 2012 election, Obama pitched the Affordable Care Act to minorities and, buoyed by their vote, won Florida.

But minority voters tend to drop off in greater proportions between presidential and gubernatorial election years.

That’s where Crist hopes the law can become a plus. If he frames the issue properly, it could be a way to motivate the Democratic Party’s base, which has consistently underperformed in mid-term elections in Florida.

Crist also understands, however, that Obamacare’s Medicare Advantage cuts can appear politically toxic in Florida, where about 1.4 million are enrolled in the program run by private insurers. Medicare Advantage costs more on a per-person basis than traditional Medicare (which serves 4.4 million more Floridians), and Obamacare reduces Advantage spending by at least 1.9 percent to fund other parts of the Affordable Care Act to try to keep it budget neutral.

In 2010, Crist said the Medicare Advantage cuts were reason alone to vote against the legislation. Now, as a Democrat, he’s using the “keep and fix” argument espoused by Sink and others in his party.

“I don’t support the cuts to Medicare Advantage,” Crist said in a statement. “In every major law, there are things you like and things you don’t. The President and Congress should fix it.”

When Scott first began criticizing Crist over Medicare, Crist responded by noting that Scott’s former hospital company was socked with a record $1.7 billion Medicare-fraud fine.

Attacking Crist over Obamacare serves a double purpose for the unpopular Scott: It tags the popular Crist with an unpopular program and it reminds Republicans that Crist is no longer one of them.

The latter is perhaps more crucial to Scott’s poor poll numbers in the short term because Crist is drawing a disproportionate share of Republicans away from the governor. When those Republicans come home, Scott’s numbers will rise.

Last Sunday, after CNN’s Candy Crowley pressed Crist on his full-throated support for the law, the state Republican Party pounced on the former governor’s “great” comment.

“We think IT’S GREAT someone finally pressed Charlie on why he supports a law that hurts the very people he claims to care about,” the GOP said in a press release.

Of course, Crist doesn’t believe the law hurts people.

And he doesn’t seem to believe the law will hurt him.

But even if Crist didn’t like Obamacare, he’d need to keep it.

About Marc Caputo

Marc Caputo

@MarcACaputo

Marc Caputo is the Miami Herald's political writer. Hailing from Key West, he graduated from the University of Miami.

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