How Democrats Running for Governor Will Talk About Obamacare

The law is still unpopular, but Democratic gubernatorial candidates have found a silver lining in it.

Audrey Haynes, left, secretary of Health and Family Services, unveils the total number of enrollees in Kynect as Gov. Steve Beshear looks on during a news conference at the Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., on April 22, 2014. 
LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER2014
Karyn Bruggeman
May 6, 2014, 1 a.m.

Demo­crats run­ning for the Sen­ate aren’t talk­ing about the pres­id­ent’s health care law, out­side of oc­ca­sion­ally call­ing for a fix. But in sev­er­al pivotal gubernat­ori­al races, the party’s can­did­ates have shown they’re much more com­fort­able em­bra­cing Obama­care.

The phe­nomen­on is no ac­ci­dent. The bulk of this year’s com­pet­it­ive ex­ec­ut­ive con­tests are in Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing states car­ried by the pres­id­ent in 2012, where the law is less tox­ic than in the red states that dom­in­ate the Sen­ate elect­or­al land­scape.

Plus, state of­fi­cials, such as Ken­tucky Gov. Steve Be­s­hear, aren’t strug­gling like their fed­er­al coun­ter­parts to square a con­gres­sion­al vote with sour pub­lic opin­ion. “The prob­lem for the Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors is, this elec­tion may fo­cus in con­gres­sion­al races on wheth­er you voted for it or wheth­er you didn’t, but folks know Demo­crat­ic gov­ernors and Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors didn’t vote for it, be­cause they wer­en’t there. We had the job of im­ple­ment­ing it,” says Demo­crat­ic Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation Chair­man Peter Shum­lin of Ver­mont.

In this year’s gubernat­ori­al con­tests, the main Obama­care is­sue is Medi­caid ex­pan­sion, the only part of the Af­ford­able Care Act that con­sist­ently polls well across the coun­try and also rests sin­gu­larly in the hands of the na­tion’s gov­ernors. In at least half a dozen races from Wis­con­sin to Geor­gia, Demo­crats plan to at­tack Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bents for not ex­pand­ing Medi­caid — and they be­lieve it’s one of their top is­sues: An es­tim­ated 4.8 mil­lion people fall with­in the Medi­caid eli­gib­il­ity gap be­cause they don’t live in states where they’ve been af­forded the abil­ity to en­roll.

These op­por­tun­it­ies have opened small win­dows for Demo­crats to cam­paign on the law’s pos­it­ives, but it’s a strategy that so far has mostly been ad­op­ted by sev­er­al Demo­crat­ic un­der­dogs look­ing to catch late mo­mentum in con­tested primar­ies. Rep. Allyson Schwartz began the year as an early fa­vor­ite to face em­battled GOP Gov. Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, but she now finds her­self strug­gling to run com­pet­it­ively against wealthy Demo­crat­ic rival Tom Wolf. Schwartz launched an ad in mid-April poin­tedly de­fend­ing her work on the Af­ford­able Care Act and has since called on her primary op­pon­ents to stop shy­ing away from the is­sue. “All the oth­er Demo­crats should speak up and talk about their pride in this law,” Schwartz said.

The ad flashes im­ages of her stand­ing be­side Pres­id­ent Obama be­fore Schwartz pro­claims dir­ect-to-cam­era, “It’s something I’m proud of,” and pro­ceeds to call out Corbett for his de­cision not to take fed­er­al money to ex­pand Medi­caid. She notes that 500,000 Pennsylvani­ans are miss­ing out on health cov­er­age be­cause of that de­cision.

In Flor­ida, Re­pub­lic­an-turned-Demo­crat Charlie Crist has de­fen­ded his sup­port for the law even though he’s been reg­u­larly at­tacked by Gov. Rick Scott for his po­s­i­tion. His strategy ap­pears to be geared to­ward win­ning over lib­er­al skep­tics, but it non­ethe­less sets him a world apart from most Demo­crats. The Sun-Sen­tinel in Fort Laud­er­dalere­por­ted in April that Crist said dur­ing a cam­paign stop, “I don’t shy away from it. I don’t back away from it. I don’t apo­lo­gize for it. It’s the right thing to do.”

But in some places, prob­lems with state-level in­sur­ance ex­changes have caused gubernat­ori­al can­did­ates as much heart­burn as op­por­tun­ity. In Mary­land, state At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Doug Gansler is fa­cing tough odds against front-run­ner An­thony Brown, the lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor, in the race to suc­ceed out­go­ing Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley. The state is one of sev­er­al where ex­change web­sites have suffered ser­i­ous prob­lems; the Mary­land site’s launch and sub­sequent re­pair pro­cess looks like it might cost an ad­di­tion­al $40 mil­lion on top of the $130 mil­lion already spent to switch to Con­necti­c­ut’s sys­tem. Though Brown was not per­son­ally re­spons­ible for the web­site, he was the one O’Mal­ley chose to guide im­ple­ment­a­tion of fed­er­al health re­form. Gansler has been us­ing the is­sue to ag­gress­ively ques­tion Brown’s lead­er­ship abil­ity, call­ing the web­site a “mess” and “a $200 mil­lion fail­ure” in a series of cam­paign ads.

Gansler co­chaired Obama’s cam­paign in Mary­land in 2008 and led Demo­crat­ic at­tor­neys gen­er­al in fil­ing an amicus brief in sup­port of the law with the Su­preme Court.

“The thing we’re hear­ing from voters is that Mary­land’s health ex­change should have led the na­tion, but in­stead it’s failed, and it’s been an em­bar­rass­ment, and it hurt people. That’s why An­thony Brown’s fail­ure is so egre­gious,” said Gansler spokes­wo­man Katie Hill. “We can do bet­ter and should have done bet­ter.”

The botched Cov­er Ore­gon statewide health care ex­change — which The Wash­ing­ton Post labeled the “worst Obama­care web­site” — is also emer­ging as a ma­jor is­sue in Gov. John Kitzhaber’s reelec­tion cam­paign. Last Fri­day, the Cov­er Ore­gon­board de­cided to join the fed­er­al Health­Care.gov ex­change in the wake of per­sist­ent tech­nic­al prob­lems. State Rep. Den­nis Richard­son ap­pears likely to win the Re­pub­lic­an primary and face Kitzhaber in Novem­ber, and he plans to make the ex­change the cent­ral fo­cus of his cam­paign. In a re­cent in­ter­view with the As­so­ci­ated Press, Richard­son called it “an in­dic­a­tion of the fail­ure of lead­er­ship of our gov­ernor.” 

Asked wheth­er more can­did­ates would be en­dors­ing Obama­care as part of their cam­paign mes­saging, Shum­lin de­clined to com­ment. In­stead, he said he ex­pec­ted that many GOP gov­ernors’ op­pos­i­tion to Medi­caid ex­pan­sion would be­come an is­sue in the gen­er­al elec­tion. “I would ar­gue that on health care, those that will be pun­ished in gov­ernor’s races are those that re­fuse to give ac­cess to their most vul­ner­able be­cause they’re try­ing to make a polit­ic­al point.”

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