Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida congresswoman and chair of the Democratic National Committee, is nothing if not dedicated to the cause. “You’re darn right our candidates are going to run on the advantage that Obamacare will be going into the 2014 election,” she recently told CNN.
But as the news about the president’s health care law goes from bad to worse—a faulty website and low enrollment gave way to higher premiums and a steady stream of cancellation letters—congressional Democrats will likely want to talk about anything but Obamacare on the trail. In fact, it’s a number of Republican challengers who say Obamacare will work to their advantage next November.
One of them is Elise Stefanik, a 29-year-old Republican from upstate New York’s North Country region trying to unseat Democratic congressman Bill Owens. Owens, who won his seat in a 2009 special election, voted for Obamacare in 2010. The district is large and rural, mostly white and middle- or working-class, traditionally Republican but now split evenly between the parties. Stefanik says nearly 90 percent of questions she receives from voters at town halls these days concern their uncertainty about the status of their health insurance under Obamacare. In St. Lawrence County, one of the most reliably Democratic in the district, people took the microphone one after another to tell their personal stories. “Each one would say, ‘This is what I was paying, this is what I’m paying now,’ ” Stefanik says.
Polls reflect this growing anxiety over the effects of the law. A new survey from the Washington Post and ABC News found 39 percent of registered voters say a candidate’s support of Obamacare would make them more likely to oppose that candidate, while just 23 percent say it would make them more likely to support that candidate.
“Obamacare is unpopular, it’s too expensive, and many Americans will be forced out of their health plans over the next 11 months. It’s ‘bad medicine’ for many voters,” says Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. If the adage is that a rising tide lifts all boats, he adds, the corollary that sailors aboard a sinking ship are all at risk is also true.
“Right now, that sinking ship is Obamacare,” Newhouse says. “And that has to worry House Democrats.”
If Stefanik’s experience is an indication of the attitude in swing districts across the country, House Democrats on the electoral margins may be running, not walking, away from Obamacare as the 2014 elections approach.
The exodus has already begun. On November 15, the day after Wasserman Schultz predicted her party would win on Obamacare, the House held a vote on Michigan Republican Fred Upton’s bill, which would allow insurers to continue selling plans they currently offer through next year. President Obama threatened to veto the Upton bill if it came to his desk, since the proposal would have gutted a critical element of the law. Bill Owens and 38 other House Democrats voted for it anyway.
Bobby Schilling of Rock Island, Illinois, has seen all this before. In 2010, he defeated a sitting Democratic congressman, as many Republicans did that year, by running against the passage of Obamacare. Schilling lost two years later to Democrat Cheri Bustos in a redrawn district that put the Republican at a significant disadvantage. But next year, he’s running for his old seat, and once again, the health care law is at the center of his pitch.
“This is going to be the number one issue in the campaign,” says Schilling.
When he first ran, Schilling says, voters were angry at Democrats because of the way the bill passed the House: the backroom dealing, arm-twisting, and special favors. But now, the consequences of the law are starting to hit home. “Because people are seeing it come to their mailbox, it’s become real,” he says. One voter told Schilling his $435 premium is shooting up to nearly $1,400 next year, while his deductible will go from $10,000 to $12,000. No wonder Bustos, who wasn’t in the House to vote for Obamacare in 2010 but has supported it since her 2012 campaign, was among those who voted for the Upton bill.
“She’s a little too late,” says Schilling.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” says Evan Jenkins of Cabell County in West Virginia. The Democrat-turned-Republican is running to beat longtime congressman Nick Rahall, the lone remaining Democrat in West Virginia’s House delegation. Rahall voted for Obamacare, but capturing the district has eluded Republicans in recent years. His vote for the Upton bill signals that Rahall sees trouble on the horizon.
Jenkins calls Obamacare a “red-hot issue” for the older, rural population of West Virginia, and he anticipates that more sticker shock and a decrease in access to care will only make voters angrier at Democrats supporting the law. “The next wave is going to be significant,” says Jenkins.
Rahall has, for the most part, continued to embrace the law he helped pass, saying in a recent radio interview that those who have received insurance cancellation letters may find it’s “in their best interest in the long term.” But his opponent says Rahall’s vote to allow Americans to keep their current plans shouldn’t fool anyone.
“The public recognizes when someone is trying to blur their record,” Jenkins says.
Nowhere are the consequences of Obamacare being felt more than in California, where the new state insurance exchange has not had the technical difficulties faced by the federal website. Covered California, the state exchange, boasted 31,000 enrollees in the month of October, according to the Los Angeles Times. But the Times also reported that one million Californians will lose their existing health insurance coverage next year. So while Obamacare is “working” in the Golden State, not all California Democrats are celebrating it. Seven voted for the Upton bill, including four who ran behind President Obama in their districts in 2012.
One of those Democrats is John Garamendi from Walnut Grove near Sacramento. Garamendi’s Republican opponent, assemblyman Dan Logue, says making an issue of Obamacare is a “cornerstone” of his campaign.
“This has been a big issue to voters here,” Logue says. “They’re absolutely stunned that it’s been this bad.”
“I think people are frustrated,” says Carl DeMaio, another Republican in California, who is challenging San Diego-area Democrat (and Upton bill supporter) Scott Peters by running against Obamacare. “They just want to see the problem solved.”
With the 2014 midterms a little less than a year away, can public discontent over Obamacare carry Republicans in these swing districts? Schilling predicts that with companies making decisions a few months before the employer mandate takes effect January 1, 2015, Democrats will be dealing with an even bigger mess as more people lose their health insurance on the eve of the election. “There’s no way around this,” he says. Stefanik, meanwhile, believes the real issue with Obamacare is the “lack of trust” among voters toward the Democrats who sold the law under false pretenses.
The game changer, Logue asserts, is that Democrats finally will have to answer to real, live human beings who have been negatively affected by their signature law. He says, “We have the sob stories now.”
Michael Warren is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.