Dems' new 2014 plan: Neutralize Obamacare
By: James Hohmann
February 17, 2014 06:34 AM EST
Democrats know their biggest problem in this year’s midterm election is Obamacare. So top party operatives have settled on a strategy to try blunting the GOP’s advantage: Tell voters Republicans would make the problem worse — raising prescription drug prices, empowering insurance companies and even endangering domestic violence victims.
The battle plan, details of which were in a memo obtained by POLITICO, recognizes the unpopularity of the Affordable Care Act. But it also banks on voter fatigue with the GOP’s relentless demands for repeal and counts on poll-backed data that show many Americans would rather fix Obamacare’s problems than scrap it altogether.
Republicans scoff at the notion that voters will forgive Democrats for the health care law and its botched roll-out, arguing that the reality now is too clear for Democrats to muddy it with promises about the future.
But as conservative groups pump tens of millions of dollars into anti-Obamacare ads, Democrats are reacting in their own ads and on the stump with the same talking points: that the GOP has wasted too much time on repeal votes, that it’s time to move on to solving the law’s problems, and that Republicans want to return to the days where insurance companies took advantage of customers. Some Democrats also are resurrecting the claim that Republicans will gut Medicare.
“The best way to push back on the attacks we know Republicans will launch over health care is to be on offense about what your opponent would do to health care while highlighting your commitment to fixing and improving the law,” Jesse Ferguson, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s deputy executive director, wrote in the memo.
The five-page document, dated Jan. 30, was sent to House candidates and included 17 poll-tested lines of attack against Republicans who have voted to repeal the law, complete with research citations.
The messages not only warn that the GOP would undo some popular aspects of the law — such as preventing insurance companies from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions — but some also target demographics such as women and the elderly who are considered extra sensitive to the law’s effects. Thus the claim that GOP candidates would let insurance companies deny coverage to female victims of domestic violence, allow the costs of prescription drugs to rise for seniors, or deny coverage for contraception.
Another key theme of the strategy is to paint the Republicans as mere tools of the all-powerful insurance companies. One suggested talking point in the memo alleges the GOP’s approach would mean bigger bonuses for insurance company CEOs.
The strategy aims to highlight the most popular elements of the law while trying to avoid directly mentioning it whenever possible. It’s an uphill task in part because Democrats must appeal to independents frustrated by the law without alienating their liberal base. That requires finesse that some of the party’s candidates may not have.
And despite some recent good news on the Obamacare front — including the announcement this past week that 3.3 million people have enrolled through the marketplaces set up by the law — most Democratic operatives privately acknowledge that the law remains an albatross. Their game plan hopes to merely fight the Republicans to a draw, and they can point to a significant amount of data that show they’ve got room to maneuver.
An internal Democratic poll recently conducted in Montana, where there’s a competitive Senate race, found that 65 percent of voters agree with the statement “we’ve wasted too much time talking about Obamacare and we have other problems to deal with.” Among targeted voters, those deemed as persuadable, 73 percent agreed. Among women, 68 percent agreed and 28 percent disagreed.
Another Democratic poll in a state President Barack Obama carried with a competitive Senate race found two-thirds of voters agreed with the statement: “There are problems with the law, but there are good things — including coverage for preexisting conditions … so no more bankruptcies for medical bills.”
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A nonpartisan Kaiser Health Tracking Poll last month found that 50 percent of Americans view the Affordable Care Act unfavorably, compared to 34 percent who view it positively. But three in 10 of those who dislike the law say that opponents should accept it’s the law of the land and work to improve it, with less than 40 percent supporting the continued push for full repeal.
And while the law itself is unpopular, Democrats often retain an advantage over Republicans in polling on who can better handle the generic issue of “health care.”
Republicans argue the president’s party owns Obamacare, especially Democratic Senate incumbents who voted for it. National Republican Senatorial Committee strategist Brad Dayspring noted that voters can be tired of the repeal talk yet still hate the law. He insisted that Democrats lost their credibility when some of the promises they made about Obamacare didn’t pan out.
“Democrats promised people could keep their doctors and health care plans,” Dayspring said. “They promised Obamacare would create jobs. They promised Obamacare wouldn’t touch Medicare benefits. They promised Obamacare would mean lower health costs for everyone. These were all lies repeatedly told by [senators] Kay Hagan, Jeanne Shaheen, Mark Pryor, Mark Udall and Mark Warner, and voters can’t trust them to ‘fix’ the law, never mind want them to.”
In races across the country, Democrats and their supporters are tailoring campaign ads in a way that distances the candidates from the health law’s problems, casts them as a potential savior, and warns of dire consequences if Republicans are back in charge.
A House Majority PAC commercial in Arizona credits vulnerable Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick with listening to her constituents. “She blew the whistle on the disastrous health care web site, calling it ‘stunning ineptitude’ and worked to fix it,” a narrator says. “She fought to hold insurance companies accountable so they can’t deny coverage for preexisting conditions or drop coverage when you get sick.”
A similar ad from the same group in Florida said of another vulnerable House Democrat: “Joe Garcia is working to fix Obamacare. He voted to let you keep your existing health plan and took the White House to task for the disastrous health care web site. And Joe Garcia fought to hold the insurance companies accountable, so they can’t deny coverage for preexisting conditions or drop coverage when you get sick.”
The Senate Majority PAC spent $750,000 in December pushing a similar message in a North Carolina ad. A cast of regular-looking people praised Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, one of Republican’s top targets this year, for protecting their Medicare and Social Security, taking on drug companies and voting “to cut waste and fraud in Medicare.” Then the same people criticize her leading Republican challenger.
“I’ve read that Speaker Thom Tillis sides with insurance companies,” a man says.
Ty Matsdorf, a strategist for the Senate Majority PAC, said to expect more ads showing Democratic candidates trying to make the system work and Republicans working to empower the insurance companies instead.
“This won’t be a referendum on any single issue,” Matsdorf said. “Voters have to know there’s a choice in the election.”
Democratic operatives say a major part of the strategy is to go on offense over Medicare by accusing Republicans of trying to cut the program. Since the electorate in the midterms tends to be older, Medicare is tantamount to health care for a huge swath of voters.
(It’s a tricky tactic for Democrats, however, because the Affordable Care Act itself included plans for some $716 billion in Medicare cuts. The GOP has in the past hammered on that point, even though many of them supported Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s own proposed budget in 2012 that effectively kept those reductions — and was in turn pilloried by the left.)
Ads for Arkansas Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, who is running against Rep. Tom Cotton, push the Medicare theme. In one, a woman worries about her parents and grandparents. “It says here that Cotton voted in Congress to change Medicare into a voucher system that will increase out-of-pocket expenses for every senior in Arkansas, thousands of dollars every year,” the woman says.
Cotton spokesman David Ray calls the ads “despicable scare tactics” and criticizes Pryor for previously calling Obamacare “an amazing success.” “Tom Cotton opposes any changes to Medicare for current beneficiaries or those nearing eligibility,” Ray said.
Democrats hope that, by 2016, enough of the laws benefits will have kicked in, and its glitches have been smoothed out, to make it an issue they can run on as opposed to dodge. And while Republicans for the most part are counting on Obamacare’s negatives to help them in this year’s races, there is a debate within the GOP about whether it behooves them to offer detailed alternatives.
Three conservative senators—Orrin Hatch, Richard Burr and Tom Coburn— recently unveiled a plan that would give tax credits to people who aren’t employed at a large company, allow states to establish high-risk pools and reshape the Medicaid program, all paid for by capping the tax break for employer health plans. They propose continuing to let young people stay on their parents’ plan until age 26 and eliminating lifetime insurance caps.
For the most part, however, Republicans have focused far more on “repeal” than “replace,” and in some primaries GOP candidates who have even hinted that some aspects of Obamacare are good or need to be saved have been blasted by those further to the right. In general, the GOP line has been that Obamacare must be repealed in full and that any approach to replacement needs to start with a blank slate.
It remains to be seen whether more Republicans will turn their focus on providing alternatives to Obamacare after primary season fades into the general election run. Many believe offering details only gives Democrats fodder for attacks.
For now, Democratic strategists believe time is on their side.
“Republicans believe they can ride into the majority on a one-trick pony, where they run the same ad in every race and treat every state exactly the same,” said Matt Canter, the deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “There is a diminishing return to running the same attacks for the next nine months.”