GOP candidates show signs of retreat on full Obamacare repeal as midterms approach
By Juliet Eilperin and Robert Costa, Published: May 29 | Updated: Friday, May 30, 5:59 AM
Republican candidates have begun to retreat in recent weeks from their all-out assault on the Affordable Care Act in favor of a more piecemeal approach, suggesting they would preserve some aspects of the law while jettisoning others.
The changing tactics signal that the health-care law — while still unpopular with voters overall — may no longer be the lone rallying cry for Republicans seeking to defeat Democrats in this year’s midterm elections.
The moves also come as senior House Republicans have decided to postpone a floor vote on their own health-reform proposal — making it less likely that a GOP alternative will be on offer before the November elections, according to lawmakers familiar with the deliberations. The delay will give them more time to work on the bill and weigh the consequences of putting a detailed policy before the voters in the fall, lawmakers said.
On the campaign trail, some Republicans and their outside allies have started talking about the health-care law in more nuanced terms than they have in the past.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is running ads suggesting that many of its favored candidates will tweak Obamacare rather than scrap it. One spot says Rep. Joseph J. Heck (R-Nev.) will fix the law, while another says Republican Massachusetts House contender Richard Tisei will “work in a bipartisan manner to fix healthcare the right way.”
The business group’s ads in Kentucky use almost identical language, declaring in separate spots that Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) and Rep. Andy Barr (R) would work to “fix” the “Obamacare mess.”
In Oregon, GOP Senate candidate and pediatric neurosurgeon Monica Wehby backs the ban on discriminating against consumers on the basis of preexisting conditions and the provision allowing parents to keep their children on their plans up until age 26, according to spokesman Charlie Pearce. While she opposes other aspects of the law and would like to replace it, Pearce said, she does not see that as realistic while “the president’s in office.”
Some Republicans are grappling with how to characterize their views. Former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, who is running for a Senate seat in New Hampshire, continues to campaign against it. But Brown also acknowledges keeping his 23-year old daughter on his insurance plan — which would not be offered without the health-care law — and has declined to say whether he would endorse expansion of the Medicaid program in the state.
In Minnesota, Republican House candidate Stewart Mills pledges in a campaign ad to “replace” the law, rather than simply repealing it.
Elizabeth Wilner, a senior vice president at Kantar Media, wrote in a recent column for the Cook Political Report that “a shift already is underway” on the airwaves. Wilner said the change is particularly notable after more than $400 million worth of anti-Obamacare ads were run during the now-waning GOP primary season.
The health law — which had a rocky rollout in the fall — managed to exceed its enrollment goals last month, but has continued to struggle to gain traction with voters. A Gallup poll released Thursday found 51 percent of Americans disapprove of the Affordable Care Act while 43 percent approve. But surveys consistently find fewer than four in 10 want to repeal the law, while about six in 10 prefer making changes or improvements in the current framework
“The sentiment toward the Affordable Care Act is still strongly negative, but people are saying, ‘Don’t throw the baby out” with the bathwater, said Glen Bolger, a partner with the GOP polling firm Public Opinion Strategies.
Democrats such as Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the latest shifts show that the GOP plan to repeatedly attack the Affordable Care Act has “backfired.”
“Now they’re promising fixes but won’t be specific,” Israel said in a statement. “That’s like a car dealer offering you a trade-in without telling you the car you’re getting in return. No one would buy that, and voters won’t buy this Republican scheme.”
McConnell, who has vowed to rip up Obamacare “root and branch,” is under fire for saying his opposition to the law is “unconnected” to the fate of his state’s health insurance exchange, Kynect.
Unlike the federal exchange, Kentucky’s system worked smoothly from the beginning, with nearly 82,000 residents signing up for private insurance and 331,000 deemed eligible for Medicaid coverage. Kynect received $252 million in federal grants under the law, according to state officials, while the Medicaid expansion stemmed from a mandate that the program cover Americans living at 138 percent of the federal poverty line.
In an e-mail, McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore said the online exchange could continue operating even if the federal law is reversed.
“If Obamacare is repealed, Kentucky should decide for itself whether to keep Kynect or set up a different marketplace,” she wrote.
The campaign manager for McConnell’s Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, issued a statement this week saying, “McConnell has voted to destroy Kynect – and he has said he will do it again.” Grimes will “fix the law,” the statement said.
In Washington, several chairmen of House committees told GOP leaders at a meeting last week that they would prefer to wait until next year to vote on a comprehensive health-care alternative, according to Republicans who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said deliberations will continue and a vote on a GOP plan remains a priority. Many GOP lawmakers are unsure whether the party should unveil their plans now or wait for a possible Senate takeover.
House Republicans had initially planned to test different health-care messages during the spring recess.
“The wave of the election is already within sight, and I believe we are going to do well,” said House Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.). “I don’t think we need a replacement bill to win the election, but it is something that would be helpful in guiding our governing agenda for next year.”
A significant number of GOP Senate and House aspirants still back the idea of fully repealing the Affordable Care Act, including Senate candidates Tom Cotton (Ark.), Terri Lynn Land (Mich.), and Thom Tillis (N.C.).
As a result, only a handful of ads on behalf of Democratic congressional candidates attack Republicans for wanting to abolish the law. Minnesota Democrat Mike Obermueller has a commercial showing the dance party that would break out among insurers if his opponent, GOP Rep. John Kline, were able to reverse it. The pro-Democratic House Majority PAC has aired an ad targeting the GOP challenger to Rep. Nick Jo Rahall (D-W.Va.), warning that the law’s repeal would undermine benefits for residents who suffer from black lung disease.
Most Democratic Senate incumbents have been more cautious, although they all say they stand by the law they voted for 41 / 2 years ago. Only Sen. Brian Schatz (Hawaii) has run an ad touting his support for it, and Grimes made a point of saying last week, ““If I had been in the Senate, it would have been a different law.”
Jahan Wilcox, spokesman for the Republican National Committee, wrote in an e-mail to reporters that Democrats will soon discover that the law remains a serious political liability. He pointed specifically to Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), along with Senate candidate Michelle Nunn of Georgia.
“We are thrilled Democrats are set to embrace their job-killing healthcare law,” Wilcox wrote.