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Hotline's Latest Edition / Against the Grain

Health Care Is Ailing Democrats

Dems who stuck with Obama on health care are in the deepest trouble.

Sen. Russ Feingold and Republican candidate Ron Johnson debate.(Darren Hauck/Getty Images)

photo of Josh Kraushaar
October 26, 2010

Updated at 9:08 a.m. on October 27.

Election Day isn’t until Tuesday, but the postgame spin has already begun. Conventional wisdom is blaming Democrats’ expected poor performance on the lousy economy. Democrats blame the influx of outside money. And Republicans are thanking Nancy Pelosi.

But the reality that Democrats hate to discuss – and even some Republicans have been hesitant to fully embrace – is that the party’s signature health care law is what’s turning a bad election year into a disaster of potential history-making proportions.


It was the debate over health care that propelled now-Sen. Scott Brown’s unlikely special election victory in Massachusetts back in January. And it’s the growing unpopularity of the new law that’s fueling Republican energy, turning off independents and jeopardizing the prospects of dozens of Democrats who looked like locks for reelection just a year ago.

There’s no doubt that the health care bill is unpopular. A new Battleground Poll shows 54 percent opposed to it, 40 percent strongly. This weeks' Society for Human Resource Management/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, conducted with the Pew Research Center, showed voters favor repealing the law by a 10-point margin, 51 to 41 percent. Republicans have been hammering Democrats across the country over their votes for the legislation, even in solidly Democratic states and districts. Of the many Democratic lawmakers in trouble, only a brave and principled few, such as Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., and Rep. Scott Murphy, D-N.Y., have even mentioned their support for the bill – and the latest polls have both trailing in their reelection bids.

By contrast, Democrats who opposed the bill are in surprisingly decent shape, given the lousy political environment. Many of the anti-health care Democrats hail from Southern districts that John McCain comfortably carried in 2008. And while many of them still face tough races, members like Bobby Bright of Alabama, Travis Childers of Mississippi, Ike Skelton of Missouri, and Larry Kissell of North Carolina find themselves with a fighting chance despite the deeply conservative nature of their districts.

Outside the South, Rep. Michael Arcuri, D-N.Y., looked like toast after he was one of the few Democrats who flipped his vote to oppose the health care bill, against the advice of Democratic strategists. Now he finds himself with a chance to survive in a neck-and-neck race, with him touting a message of independence from Democratic leaders – in a district that Obama carried.

The picture is not so bright for the Democrats who went along with the White House. Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Fla., a founding member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dogs, never faced a close race in his 14-year congressional career. But after he flipped his position from opposing to supporting the president’s health care bill – one of eight Democrats to do so - he barely survived his own primary. Now, his prospects for reelection are dim.

Of the eight who flipped their votes to support the bill, two announced their retirement (Bart Gordon and Brian Baird) and five others are in tough races. The other is Dennis Kucinich, who initially opposed the bill because it didn’t have a public option.

Indeed, House Democrats who gave the decisive margin at the end – the so-called Stupak bloc, who held out their support until anti-abortion language was inserted and those who flipped their votes to support the bill -- read like a who’s who of the most at-risk Democrats.

Reps. Kathy Dahlkemper, D-Pa., and Steve Driehaus, D-Ohio, were among the first two to be cut off from national party money to help their campaigns, and Reps. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., and Christopher Carney, D-Pa., are not in much better shape. Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.V., was one of four members to lose a primary, against a more-conservative opponent who criticized him for his health care vote. Even Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, in a heavily Democratic Toledo seat, was sufficiently concerned about her own reelection to dig up pictures of her Republican opponent reenacting World War II battles in Nazi garb.

It’s not just Democratic House members whose political health is being threatened by the health care law. In Washington state, Sen. Patty Murray is in a neck-and-neck fight with Dino Rossi in a Democratic-friendly state – and one of the Republican challenger’s closing ads focuses exclusively on Murray’s comments in favor of the health care bill.

If that’s not compelling enough evidence that health care is fueling the Democrats’ dismal situation, polling recently commissioned by the National Republican Congressional Committee in 65 of the most competitive congressional seats held by Democrats provides more. When participants were asked an open-ended question about what gives them the biggest pause about voting for their sitting member of Congress, a solid plurality said it was health care – ahead of the economy and jobs. In a follow-up focus group in Erie, Pa., with some of the poll’s participants, one of the organizers said it was striking to see how many women’s votes were driven by health care. Some came to the focus group reciting chapter and verse the provisions of the law they didn’t like. Many said they were Obama supporters in 2008, but the more they heard about the health care bill, the more frustrated they became.

The administration’s relentless focus on health care last year came at the worst possible time, when most Americans were looking at a scary economic climate and wanted laser-like attention to fixing it. It greatly expanded the scope of government, even though most Americans identify themselves as moderates or conservatives. It helped galvanize a movement, the tea party, that’s shaping up to be a force in politics.

This election is not about messaging or money -- it’s largely about policy, and in particular, on a far-reaching piece of legislation that has proven deeply unpopular in states and districts across the country. If the White House fails to acknowledge or address the deep and widespread opposition to the law, the president’s strategists are going to have a tough time figuring out how to effectively deal with GOP plans to repeal at least some elements of the legislation, which is emerging as a significant part of the Republican agenda in the next Congress.

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