Democrats Fear Obamacare Will Cost Them The Senate

One top Democratic pollster: “If there’s nothing you want to fix, there’s something wrong with you.”

Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) speaks to reporters at a joint session of Congress for President Obama address on February 24, 2009.
National Journal
Nov. 26, 2013, midnight

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.”

What We're Following See More »
AVOIDS SHUTDOWN WITH A FEW HOURS TO SPARE
Trump Signs Border Deal
2 days ago
THE LATEST

"President Trump signed a sweeping spending bill Friday afternoon, averting another partial government shutdown. The action came after Trump had declared a national emergency in a move designed to circumvent Congress and build additional barriers at the southern border, where he said the United States faces 'an invasion of our country.'"

Source:
REDIRECTS $8 BILLION
Trump Declares National Emergency
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

"President Donald Trump on Friday declared a state of emergency on the southern border and immediately direct $8 billion to construct or repair as many as 234 miles of a border barrier. The move — which is sure to invite vigorous legal challenges from activists and government officials — comes after Trump failed to get the $5.7 billion he was seeking from lawmakers. Instead, Trump agreed to sign a deal that included just $1.375 for border security."

Source:
COULD SOW DIVISION AMONG REPUBLICANS
House Will Condemn Emergency Declaration
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

"House Democrats are gearing up to pass a joint resolution disapproving of President Trump’s emergency declaration to build his U.S.-Mexico border wall, a move that will force Senate Republicans to vote on a contentious issue that divides their party. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Thursday evening in an interview with The Washington Post that the House would take up the resolution in the coming days or weeks. The measure is expected to easily clear the Democratic-led House, and because it would be privileged, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would be forced to put the resolution to a vote that he could lose."

Source:
MILITARY CONSTRUCTION, DRUG FORFEITURE FUND
Where Will the Emergency Money Come From?
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

"ABC News has learned the president plans to announce on Friday his intention to spend about $8 billion on the border wall with a mix of spending from Congressional appropriations approved Thursday night, executive action and an emergency declaration. A senior White House official familiar with the plan told ABC News that $1.375 billion would come from the spending bill Congress passed Thursday; $600 million would come from the Treasury Department's drug forfeiture fund; $2.5 billion would come from the Pentagon's drug interdiction program; and through an emergency declaration: $3.5 billion from the Pentagon's military construction budget."

Source:
TRUMP SAYS HE WILL SIGN
House Passes Funding Deal
3 days ago
THE DETAILS

"The House passed a massive border and budget bill that would avert a shutdown and keep the government funded through the end of September. The Senate passed the measure earlier Thursday. The bill provides $1.375 billion for fences, far short of the $5.7 billion President Trump had demanded to fund steel walls. But the president says he will sign the legislation, and instead seek to fund his border wall by declaring a national emergency."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login