GOP: Virginia results boost 2014 Obamacare attacks
By: Alex Isenstadt
November 6, 2013 07:31 PM EST
At a time when not much is going right politically for the Republican Party, one thing certainly is: Obamacare.
And the Virginia governor’s race this week, party hands say, is the best evidence yet.
Exit polls Tuesday showed voters lining up against Obamacare, with 53 percent saying they were opposed to the law — and those voters overwhelmingly cast their ballots for Republican Ken Cuccinelli. Whether health care is the singular issue that made the race closer than expected is hard to say. But after Cuccinelli made an anti-Obamacare message the centerpiece of his closing argument, it’s likely that it played some role in helping to close the gap between him and Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the final days of the contest.
And Cuccinelli’s Obamacare push may have helped him win among a critical demographic: independents, whom he won by 9 percentage points, according to exit polls.
“Virginia validates Republican hopes that Obamacare will not only be the defining issue but also the most potent issue,” said Brock McCleary, a GOP pollster. “What really moved numbers at the end [of the Virginia governor’s race] was that Obamacare drove headlines, particularly in the Washington, D.C., media market.”
“Any Republican who isn’t salivating at the possibility of using Obamacare against Democrats,” he added, “isn’t using empirical data.”
On Wednesday, as pollsters and strategists sorted through election results, some Democrats argued aggressively that Obamacare wasn’t the defining issue that narrowed the margin in Virginia’s surprisingly close gubernatorial race. And others said McAuliffe’s win — narrow as it might have been — showed that voters in a swing state had rejected the GOP’s attacks on the law.
“Republicans tried to make Virginia a referendum on the Affordable Care Act — and they lost,” Kelly Ward, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee executive director, wrote in a memo to reporters. “Voters sent a message all right: that they have had enough of politicians trying to take away benefits and sabotage the law rather than fix it, improve it and implement it effectively.”
Behind the scenes, however, Democrats are worried. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama met with a group of Democratic senators who are facing tough 2014 reelection bids to hear their concerns about the health care law. Some Democrats fret the party will be at risk of losing Senate seats unless the problems with the Affordable Care Act are fixed.
After the meeting, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that the president was “not concerned” about incurring political damage from the rollout.
Republicans, for their part, haven’t had much to smile about lately. The GOP has been scarred by a tea party-induced government shutdown; its prospects for winning control of the Senate are dwindling; and the nagging rift between the establishment and insurgent Republican Party wings is set to frame a series of resource-draining primary fights in 2016.
What’s more, party operatives are openly worried about losing a special election for a Florida congressional seat the GOP has held for more than four decades, and a few House GOP incumbents in swing seats have recently decided to call it quits.
Against all that lousy news, Republicans say they are becoming increasingly confident that the health care law — and its badly botched unveiling — could be their savior. Obamacare, they argue, remains as unpopular as ever, particularly in the conservative parts of the country where much of the 2014 campaign will be fought.
No one’s saying 2014 is anything like 2010, when ascendant congressional Republicans used Obamacare to tap into a deep vein of anger that was hottest among the conservative grass roots but also extended to independent voters. There was resentment over Democrats who rammed the health care law through Congress with no GOP support as well as the deep recession and Wall Street bailout.
Next year’s midterm, so far, is shaping up to be a far more stable election with neither party benefiting from a wave.
But there are some eerie similarities developing. Four years ago, early fallout from Obamacare was felt in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races as Republicans in both states rolled to victory. Now as the law’s real-life implications come into focus, Obamacare’s political effects are being felt again.
Some Republicans argue the health care argument is even more powerful now than it was in 2010, when the party was tapping into anxiety about a law that had yet to be implemented.
“Now its effects are being felt,” said House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). “It’s not the fear of what’s happening in the future. It’s the fear of what’s happening right now.”
Republican pollsters have spent months conducting detailed analyses of where the public stands on Obamacare and have concluded that numbers for the law are soft enough to give them fertile ground. In an east Georgia congressional district, McCleary’s firm found that 53 percent of those surveyed said the implementation was going poorly. In a northeast Minnesota district, a plurality of those polled said they expected their health care to get worse under the new system.
In recent weeks, as Obamacare glitches dominated news cycles, Republican candidates across the country trained their focus on the health care law. In Alabama, special congressional election candidate Bradley Byrne began running a radio ad taking aim at the White House over its promise that everyone would be able to keep their private health care ads. In West Virginia, an ad for Republican congressional challenger Evan Jenkins blared a similar message, as did one for a super PAC boosting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
And on Thursday, American Action Network, a Republican outside group, will begin a $200,000 direct mail campaign. The ads, which highlight the problems with Obamacare, will be sent to seniors in three swing congressional districts.
“We’re a party out of power with a lot of different ideas that are being brought to the table,” said Brian Walsh, American Action Network president and former National Republican Congressional Committee political director. “But I don’t care if you’re a movement conservative or an establishment Republican. Everyone agrees: Obamacare is a disaster.”
Andy Sere, a Republican ad-maker, said that while Republicans in 2010 made arguments about the impact Obamacare would have on the economy broadly, next year will be about showing — sometimes in granular detail — the effects the law was having on the American public.
“This is a disaster for Democrats because it gives Republicans the opportunity to win the middle-class argument,” he said. “If 2010 was about macroeconomic factors and resistance to overreach, 2014 will be about the microeconomic consequences of that overreach for millions of voters.”