Anti-Obamacare messages have already blanketed the airwaves in the nation's competitive Senate and House races. But so far, the Republican Party's signature issue has played a conspicuously small role in 2014's competitive gubernatorial races.
The Republican Governors Association has started TV advertising in four states, but President Obama's health care law features in just one: South Carolina. The group's campaigns against Democrats in Arkansas, Michigan, and Wisconsin have all focused on jobs and the economy—a stark contrast to the nearly $30 million in Obamacare attack ads already weathered by congressional Democrats.
Americans for Prosperity, the group taking the lead in early advertising against House and Senate Democrats, has so far run only one television ad in a governor's race, targeting Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in Illinois. The focus? Taxes and spending. Florida Gov. Rick Scott is already running TV ads targeting Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist on Obamacare, but at this point, Scott's campaign looks like an exception.
The black-and-white attacks seen in Senate and House races fade to a muddled gray in the nation's governors' races. For starters, most of this year's competitive campaigns are in states Obama won in 2012, making attacks on the law and the president less potent than in the red states that will determine control of the Senate.
The position of Senate candidates is also crystal-clear. House Republicans running for the Senate have all voted to repeal Obamacare; the Senate Democrats running for reelection all voted to enact it. Governors, however, have a different record to run on. More than half a dozen Republican governors have expanded Medicaid (which in the eyes of some their RGA colleagues makes them complicit in the law's implementation), leaving attacks on the issue somewhere between tricky and impossible.
In Michigan, Democratic former Rep. Mark Schauer has been a vocal supporter of the law. Were he running for the Senate, that would make him an easy target. But Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has taken a more conciliatory approach toward the Affordable Care Act's implementation and pursued both Medicaid expansion and the creation of a state insurance exchange, the latter of which ultimately failed. And he was the only Republican governor who didn't sign a letter from the RGA calling for repeal.
Indeed, the RGA's first two TV ads against Schauer focused squarely on economic issues. Meanwhile, the Democratic Senate candidates in Arkansas and Michigan have been top targets for health care-oriented attacks.
"I just don't see a strong anti-Obamacare or ACA message making its way into the governor's race," said Doug Koopman, a political science professor at Calvin College and a longtime observer of Michigan politics. "I don't see the core campaign operations of the Snyder campaign really doing much with it.
"Governors actually have to manage, and they're evaluated differently," Koopman continued. "Snyder's got some skin in the game to manage Medicaid expansion well." This is particularly true right now since enrollment in Michigan's expanded Medicaid program launched on Monday.
While some Republican governors are tied to the law, some Democrats running have successfully distanced themselves from it. In Arkansas, Democratic former Rep. Mike Ross proudly touts his four "no" votes against the original bill and 23 subsequent votes for repeal. His Republican opponent, Asa Hutchinson, and the Arkansas Republican Party have tried to go after an obscure vote taken by Ross to get the original bill out of committee, but the attack hasn't gained much traction. Instead, televised attack ads are tying Ross to Obama by focusing on Ross's votes on the economic stimulus bill and the bailouts of Wall Street and the auto industry.
Americans for Prosperity's unrelenting criticism of Obamacare in Senate races includes Medicaid expansion, which it asserts "is Obamacare" no matter which way you slice it. RGA spokesman Jon Thompson, on the other hand, put it this way: "Every state is different and unique—and in some states with Republican governors, they saw Medicaid expansion as something their state could financially navigate, and in other states, the governors saw it as something [they] could not navigate."
The difference, as Thompson explained, is that "Republican governors who have expanded Medicaid are all on record saying Obamacare is a bad law, a disaster, and they are complying with a law the best they can," while Democrats like Schauer, Crist, and Vincent Sheheen in South Carolina have been "cheerleaders" for the law. It's certainly an argument against, but a far cry from the cut-and-dried rhetoric offered by AFP and others in Senate races.
It also helps that Democrats are mostly on offense in this year's top gubernatorial races, and the two key seats they are defending in Illinois and Connecticut are in blue states where state exchanges have run smoothly and the president remains relatively popular. "Bruce Rauner would be misguided to attack Obamacare in the president's home state, and in Connecticut, Governor Malloy has done a great job getting people enrolled. It's a Democratic state that likes the president. The argument will work in those places even less than it will in others," said Danny Kanner, communications director at the Democratic Governors Association.
Obamacare won't be far from any major election in 2014. The issue has already depressed the national political environment for Democrats, and this will manifest itself in campaigns across the country. Republicans at every level have made it clear they intend to go after any and all ties between Democrats, the law, and its shortcomings. To sum up the party's strategy in governor's races, RGA Chairman Chris Christie may have said it best during his address to the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas last weekend: "Here is what we stand for in 2014: Winning. That's what we stand for."
If the GOP's early strategy is any indication, Obamacare isn't always as good a path to gubernatorial victory as it is in federal races.
This article appears in the April 3, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.