GOP Strategists: Don’t Bet the House on Obamacare

Party insiders say a single-issue campaign could fall short in 2014.

A man walks under a banner marking the anniversary of 'ObamaCare' outside of the Republican National Committee office on March 23, 2012 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
Feb. 11, 2014, 6:40 a.m.

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.

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