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.”