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
Josh Kraushaar
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.”

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