Republicans have an inviting map, a favorable environment, and a competitive lineup of candidates as the 2014 election approaches—the perfect mix to expand their House majority and take the Senate. Now they just have to ask themselves: Are they going to bet it all on Obamacare?
So far, they are. The conservative Americans for Prosperity has spent roughly $27 million on ads already this cycle, nearly every penny of which has targeted Democratic incumbents' support for the Affordable Care Act. A special House election in Florida, where the two parties are contesting a swing district near St. Petersburg, has witnessed one ad after another targeting the Democratic nominee's support for the health care law. For conservatives especially, taking aim at Obamacare is an irresistible match of exposing a political vulnerability while satisfying an ideological gripe.
President Obama's health care law is a tantalizing target and should be part of any GOP candidate's campaign. But among some in the party's political class, there's also a nagging sense that Obamacare is not quite enough. Whether concerned that the party bet big on Obamacare in 2012 with disastrous consequences or that a single issue—however potent—won't persuade enough voters, they're warning candidates to do more than just harp on the Affordable Care Act.
The experts' advice: The party needs to turn its criticism of Obamacare into a larger critique of Democrats, one that not only includes other issues but also makes a broader point about the failures of big-government liberalism. Most important, the GOP needs to show voters it has ideas of its own: With the party brand badly damaged, candidates must demonstrate why they deserve another crack at power.
"What we need to do … is to convince voters that we have the wherewithal and the ideas to fix issues, to put forward those solutions that can address those concerns," said Danny Diaz, a Republican strategist. "That is the core component of the argument and one I think you're going to see candidates across [the] country do to a greater degree than they have before."
Some House Republicans are already trying, publicly discussing their own proposals on immigration and health care. Those amount to baby steps—they're more guidelines than actual legislation—but are part of a concerted effort from GOP leadership to define what the party stands for. "It is incumbent upon us, as an alternative party, not just an opposition party, to have ideas that we put forward that are grounded in market principles that will work," Greg Walden, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said last week. "The point is, you need something positive to run on."
Other GOP campaigns have already broadened their messages. Mitch McConnell, for instance, criticizes his Democratic foe Alison Lundergan Grimes for her position on coal—an issue of particular resonance in Kentucky's race. And attacks on Obamacare can offer GOP candidates an opening to make a broader point about their opponent. Officials at the National Republican Senatorial Committee argue that Democratic senators who promised all of their constituents would be able to keep their health care plans now have a credibility problem. The GOP nominee in the Florida special election said in an ad that his opponent's support for the law proves she's just another tax-and-spend liberal.
"Just because we're talking about Obamacare, and that's a huge issue, … that doesn't mean we're going to erase decades of how Republicans run campaigns on taxes and spending," one GOP strategist said.
Still, not every Republican is worried that the party risks focusing too much on the law. The issue cuts into so many concerns for voters—their own health care, the country's debt, and the economy—that it's inherently a broad-spectrum attack. That case was bolstered this week when the Congressional Budget Office predicted the economy will lose the equivalent of 2.5 million workers by 2024 because fewer people will opt to work due to the health law.
"If James Carville were a Republican, there'd be a sign hanging in his office that said, 'It's Obamacare, stupid,' " said Glen Bolger, a GOP pollster. He argued that Republicans shouldn't be worried about dwelling too much on Obamacare; they should be worried about not talking about it enough.
"Yes, we do need more than just Obamacare," he said. "But we don't need a lot more."
In a close race, however—and there could single-point battles everywhere from Alaska to North Carolina—the "more" that Bolger is talking about could make the difference between winning and losing. And it's why many Republicans, as thrilled with the political gift of Obamacare as they are, aren't ready to bet the house on it just yet.
Tim Alberta contributed to this article.
This article appears in the February 8, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Betting the House.