Last week, President Obama's pollster Joel Benenson sent a memo to congressional Democrats encouraging them to refocus attention on the economy and ignore the health care chaos that has consumed the administration for the last two months. The three-page set of talking points argued that the media's relentless focus on the Obamacare website is a "distraction" from more important work on the minds of voters.
But for Senate Democrats who backed the unpopular legislation, avoiding the subject isn't so easy. Republicans are armed with reams of polling data showing how the health care law could overturn the Democrats' majority, and are already hitting vulnerable Democrats on the subject. Indeed, Democrats who voted for the law face a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't crisis: flip-flop on legislation they actively embraced or tie themselves to an increasingly unpopular law that could doom their reelection prospects.
For now, as the White House keeps hope alive that the health care website will be mostly functional by the end of the week, Democrats are holding out hope their political fortunes will improve. Democratic operatives argue that voters are looking for constructive solutions over repealing the law—a proposition backed up by polling that shows repeal still hasn't reached majority support, even with voter frustrations growing. Some of the most vulnerable senators, like Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Begich of Alaska, have proposed their own fixes to the legislation designed to inoculate them from blowback with their conservative constituencies back home. Even Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, a loyal ally of the president's on health care, suggested he could support a delay in the individual mandate if the website still isn't working in short order by the end of November.
They're all echoing the line Democratic campaign officials are privately urging their members to take: stress the promised benefits, offer constructive criticism, and hope their constituents are patient enough to sustain them through the rocky rollout. Some may even call for more aggressive oversight of the law's implementation. But it's an open question whether that political line will be sustainable if the health care exchange website is still dysfunctional heading into next year, and an older, sicker insurance pool could mean a "death spiral" of ballooning premiums for 2015. In a telling sign of the White House's longer-term political fears, the administration delayed the second round of open enrollment for one month—to occur right after the 2014 midterms.
"There's only so much muddying up you can do on an issue as important as this," said Tom Bowen, former political adviser to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. "People elected politicians who disagree with them as long as they know where they stand. You have to have some flexibility, but trying to sort of shade who you are—that doesn't inspire a lot of confidence."
For Democrats, the politics of the health care law are creating a death spiral of their own. For the White House to protect its signature initiative, it needs to maintain a Democratic Senate majority past 2015. But to do so, Majority Leader Harry Reid needs to insulate vulnerable battleground-state Democrats, who are all too eager to propose their own fixes to the law that may be politically satisfying, but could undermine the fundamentals of the law.
Race-by-race polling conducted over the last month has painted a grim picture of the difficult environment Senate Democrats are facing next year. In Louisiana, a new state survey showed Landrieu's approval rating is now underwater; she tallied only 41 percent of the vote against her GOP opposition. In Arkansas, where advertising on the health care law began early, Sen. Mark Pryor's approval sank to 33 percent, a drop of 18 points since last year. A new Quinnipiac survey showed Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, who looked like a lock for reelection last month, in a dead heat against little-known GOP opponents. Even a Democratic automated poll from Public Policy Polling showed Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina running neck-and-neck against Republican opposition, with her job disapproval spiking over the last two months. These are the types of numbers that wave elections are made of.
The big picture isn't any better: The president's approval rating, which historically correlates with his party's midterm performance, has dipped below 40 percent in several national surveys. Democrats saw their nine-point lead on the generic ballot in the Quinnipiac survey evaporate in a month, and a CNN/ORC poll released today shows Republicans now holding a two-point lead.
"You want to prevent your race from being about Obamacare. If you enable your race to be about Obamacare, you're making a mistake," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who's working for Landrieu. "You need to explain what you're trying to fix, and you better be trying to fix something. If there's nothing you want to fix, there's something wrong with you. At this point, it's hard to defend the benefits, but you can say we're not going back to the evils of the old system."
As consolation, Democratic operatives point to the high African-American population in several Republican-friendly battleground states, like Louisiana and North Carolina, as critical to their reelection prospects. Just as the Obama campaign micro-targeted a pro-Obamacare message to Hispanic supporters to narrowly win Florida in 2012, some Democratic strategists are encouraging members to tailor their messages on health care to African-Americans, the most reliable pro-Obama constituency.
"Each of the senators [up in 2014] has a decision to make about where Obamacare could potentially energize their voters and communicate to them something that's important," said Bowen. "So for Hagan, getting out there, needing the African-American community to show up at the polls, you need to let these voters know you're on their side."
But despite the Democrats' proven mastery of campaign logistics, they face limitations if public opinion remains against them. For one, minority turnout is usually low in midterm elections, and would have to be near presidential-year levels to compensate for the party's historically low standing with white Southern voters. Landrieu is likely to face a runoff election, against a single Republican challenger in December—a month in which turnout is usually anemic among minorities. Hagan faces the challenge of winning loyal support from Democrats as an obscure freshman senator without a high profile in Washington.
Indeed, there's a growing sense of fatalism among Democrats. Even as strategists are advising their clients on how to best talk about health care, they badly want to change the subject and hope that the problems go away. On that point, the White House and congressional Democrats are on the same page.
"If the election were held today, Republicans would probably win back the majority," said one longtime Democratic operative tracking internal Senate polling. "But we know for sure the election would not be held today."