Health Care Downplayed in Georgia Special Election

Neither candidate made much of an issue that political analysts believe could be decisive in the midterms.

Karen Handel (left) looks on as House Speaker Paul Ryan campaigns for her at an event in Dunwoody, Ga., in May.
AP Photo/David Goldman
Erin Durkin
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Erin Durkin
June 21, 2017, 8 p.m.

Des­pite Demo­crats’ well-tele­graphed plans to make the House GOP’s health care bill an an­chor for Re­pub­lic­ans in 2018, the is­sue played a con­spicu­ously small role in Tues­day’s spe­cial elec­tion in Geor­gia.

Re­pub­lic­an Kar­en Han­del, who notched a nar­row vic­tory in the race to re­place Tom Price, Pres­id­ent Trump’s Health and Hu­man Ser­vices sec­ret­ary, did not make health care a cent­ral part of her cam­paign, and it was not the primary fo­cus of the mil­lions of dol­lars spent by Demo­crats in the elec­tion. A re­cent Wash­ing­ton Post Power­Post re­port noted that health care was ab­sent from the air­waves lead­ing up to the elec­tion.

Though Han­del hasn’t voted on the House GOP health care bill—an ad­vant­age her new GOP col­leagues won’t have in 2018—Demo­crats did not make an ef­fort to cap­it­al­ize on an is­sue they see as a huge vul­ner­ab­il­ity for the GOP in the 2018 midterms. (House Demo­crats taunted their GOP col­leagues, singing “Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, good­bye,” the day it was passed.)

Mean­while, Re­pub­lic­ans found suc­cess ty­ing Demo­crat Jon Os­soff to the policies of his own na­tion­al party lead­ers, even as they moved away from the re­peal-and-re­place man­tra they trot­ted out in the last four elec­tion cycles.

The lack of at­ten­tion to health care was sur­pris­ing giv­en that voters in the 6th Dis­trict lis­ted it as a ma­jor con­cern. A sur­vey by The At­lanta Journ­al-Con­sti­tu­tion taken be­fore the race found health care policy to be a top is­sue for 81 per­cent of voters. The same poll found just one-quarter of voters ap­proved of the House’s plan, known as the Amer­ic­an Health Care Act.

“If I was a Re­pub­lic­an lead­er I would say, ‘Our bill is not pop­u­lar but it’s not sink­ing our can­did­ates,’” said Robert Blendon, pro­fess­or of health policy and polit­ic­al ana­lys­is at Har­vard Uni­versity.

Geor­gia Re­pub­lic­an con­sult­ant Todd Rehm said it was smart for the Han­del cam­paign to down­play health care in the race, par­tic­u­larly while the is­sue re­mains un­settled on Cap­it­ol Hill.

“It’s hard to come out full-voiced in fa­vor of something that could be changed sig­ni­fic­antly next week,” Rehm said. He poin­ted out that after Han­del de­fen­ded the House bill in a tele­vised de­bate, Pres­id­ent Trump had made “less than fully en­thu­si­ast­ic re­marks” about the le­gis­la­tion.

Demo­crat­ic me­dia con­sult­ant John Row­ley said that the health care is­sue is “in a dra­mat­ic­ally bet­ter place for Demo­crats” but the party should heed les­sons learned in Geor­gia. In the fu­ture, he said, Demo­crats need to have a mes­sage that res­on­ates with voters, and not just rely on the fact that Trump is in the White House.

Rehm said Demo­crats suffered from their own lack of a co­hes­ive ap­proach to health care. The Os­soff cam­paign, he said, “couldn’t com­mit ideo­lo­gic­ally” on his own plans, which “pre­ven­ted him from hav­ing a clear, firm, and cent­ral po­s­i­tion on health care.”

But the GOP also has reas­on to worry. “Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship should be very nervous by the amount Os­soff was able to raise and the fact that the elec­tion res­ults were so close in a dis­trict they won by 20-plus points in the past,” said Row­ley.

Rehm said that Han­del’s close fin­ish, in a dis­trict Re­pub­lic­ans have eas­ily held for years, could also give rank-and-file mem­bers pause.

“If they take this win as a warn­ing, even in a heav­ily Re­pub­lic­an dis­trict, that a Demo­crat can come very, very close to win­ning, more vul­ner­able mem­bers are go­ing to as­sert some in­de­pend­ence from the caucus and the po­s­i­tion of the pres­id­ent,” he said.

Al­tern­at­ively, if Re­pub­lic­ans view this as a boost to the na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an pro­pos­als and to Trump, then it should be easi­er to “main­tain party dis­cip­line with the House caucus and keep those vul­ner­able mem­bers in line,” he said.

Re­pub­lic­ans on the Hill are not read­ing too much about health care in­to Han­del’s vic­tory.

House Free­dom Caucus Chair­man Mark Mead­ows said Han­del’s win does not ne­ces­sar­ily send a spe­cif­ic sig­nal on health care, but shows that “people are ser­i­ous about get­ting things done and do­ing it dif­fer­ently.”

Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee Chair­man Steve Stivers also cau­tioned against ana­lyz­ing this elec­tion for clues about health care and oth­er is­sues.

“I think people can read too much in­to that,” said Stivers. “I don’t want to say that this is some mes­sage on every is­sue. This is a mes­sage about who the people of Geor­gia wanted to rep­res­ent them.”

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