In 2014, very few Senate Democrats are safe from the undertow of Obamacare. One who—surprisingly—may not be is Jeff Merkley of Oregon. Merkley, by all accounts, should safely win reelection in November. Elected in 2008 over incumbent Republican Gordon Smith, he’s a perfect fit for the state’s population center, the progressive hipster mecca of Portland. As the Oregon house speaker, Merkley advanced a liberal laundry list of items like an expanded indoor smoking ban, a ban on junk food in schools, and more laws to limit discrimination against same-sex couples. In the U.S. Senate, he’s been a hero to the grassroots left for pushing for filibuster reform but has otherwise been a loyal liberal in line with an increasingly Democratic state. Obama won Oregon in 2012 by 12 points, and in the GOP’s banner year of 2010, senior Democratic senator Ron Wyden won handily over his Republican challenger.
Despite all those advantages, Merkley’s race may well be one to watch. If Obamacare continues to unravel and Republicans are running up big numbers against Democrats in Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Alaska, Virginia, and Montana, the unpopularity of Obama’s signature reform could claim a seat most analysts still consider solidly Democratic.
Merkley’s support is shallower than it appears. His victory in 2008 was only by 3 points, and he didn’t break 50 percent. A recent poll by one Republican-affiliated group found just 33 percent of likely Oregon voters say he deserves reelection.
More consequentially, Merkley is an unabashed supporter of Obamacare. He joined the rest of his Senate Democratic colleagues and voted for it in 2010. Indeed, Merkley made his own version of the now-infamous promise that under the law, if you liked your insurance plan you could keep it. “You would have the choice of sticking with the plan you have,” Merkley told constituents at a 2009 town hall meeting in eastern Oregon.
That promise has already made its way into an ad for one of Merkley’s potential Republican challengers, Dr. Monica Wehby (pronounced “webby”). Wehby juxtaposes Merkley’s promise with local news coverage of Oregonians who are losing their insurance or seeing higher premium rates since the Obamacare implementation. Her ad ends with the tagline: “Keep your doctor. Change your senator.”
“One of my friends came up with it,” Wehby laughs in an interview. “Our bumper stickers are flying off the shelf!”
Oregon has plenty of reasons to be angry over Obamacare. State officials announced in October that the individual plans of around 150,000 Oregonians would be canceled because they did not meet Obamacare requirements. The state’s insurance exchange website, Cover Oregon, has been plagued with worse technical glitches than the federal exchange. Since December, two top Cover Oregon officials, including the program’s director, have resigned. The day after the state’s enrollment deadline, Cover Oregon announced that just about 20,000 people had enrolled in private plans, far below initial projections and fewer than the 150,000 who had enrolled instead in Oregon’s Medicaid program.
The point, Wehby says, is Merkley sold the law as less intrusive and disruptive than he knew it would be. “People will forgive you if you’re trying to do the right thing and you make a mistake,” she says. “But when you deliberately mislead people and then they find out that you deliberately misled them, that’s a tougher thing to get by on.”
Senate Democrats across the country, from Oregon to New Hampshire, made similar promises about Obamacare. That will certainly hurt those red-state Democrats up for reelection, people like Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who top the GOP’s most wanted list. But the intrusion of Obamacare into the lives of many Americans means Democrats like Merkley who appear well protected could be in for a surprise.
“You’re seeing in the data that a lot of people who voted for Obama are unhappy” with Obamacare, says Tim Miller, executive director of the Republican-aligned opposition research firm America Rising.
“Barring some unforeseen event, Obamacare will be the issue,” says Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report. “And Democrats believe that.”
So do Republicans and conservative groups. “A 2010 vote for Obamacare is going to be a millstone around the neck of any Democratic senator except in the most blue of states,” says Jonathan Collegio of American Crossroads, one of the major conservative super-PACs. “It will be the central policy issue in the conversation in 2014, and Democrats will be desperate to change the subject to personal issues, local issues, or whatever issues.”
Americans for Prosperity, another conservative group, is already acting on that assumption. The group kicked off the year with a significant $2.5 million TV ad buy in New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Louisiana, targeting incumbent Democratic senators Jeanne Shaheen, Kay Hagan, and Landrieu for their support of Obamacare. Each 30-second spot highlights the senator’s version of the “lie of the year”—if you like your insurance plan, you can keep it under Obamacare.
For example, the ad running in North Carolina opens with an interview with Sheila A. Salter, described as a self-employed woman from Chapel Hill. “I was shocked when I got the notice that my health care policy was canceled,” Salter says in her Carolina drawl. “Kay Hagan told us if you like your insurance plan and your doctors, you could keep them. That just wasn’t true. Now, I have a temporary policy that cost me 20 percent more. Next year under Obamacare, my costs go up another $4,500.”
Americans for Prosperity president Tim Phillips says Obamacare is a more “visceral” issue this year than it was in 2010, when conservative groups like his helped elect a Republican majority in the House over outrage at the law’s passage.
“The reason I think 2014 could be more difficult for liberals is the law has hurt a lot of people,” Phillips says.
Jennifer Duffy predicts the midterms will come down to a “battle of the anecdotes.” Republicans will highlight Americans who have lost their insurance, or are paying higher premiums, or aren’t able to see their old doctors, or are experiencing longer waits for medical services. Democrats, she adds, will try to counter with their own stories of previously uninsured Americans who are better off because of Obamacare.
But Democrats are conspicuously trying to change the subject. Senate majority leader Harry Reid said in a December interview there is “no greater challenge” to the country than income inequality. The mainstream media picked up on the cue.
“Income gap takes shape as a focus ahead of midterms,” read the front-page Washington Post headline on January 7, the same day Reid took up a vote to end debate on extending unemployment insurance. That came just days after President Obama argued publicly for raising the minimum wage.
Meanwhile, Reid’s political arm, Senate Majority PAC, has begun targeting GOP Senate candidates over last fall’s government shutdown. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana congressman challenging Landrieu, is “part of the problem” according to one ad because he “voted 16 times to shut down the government.” Another House member running for the Senate, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, was called “reckless” and “irresponsible” for his support of the shutdown. Another ad targets former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, who may run against Shaheen in New Hampshire, for being a friend to Wall Street and big banks.
Democrats’ best hope to shift the focus away from Obamacare may come from Republicans themselves. Duffy says that if the GOP nominates too many problematic Senate candidates who draw negative attention to themselves (think of Christine O’Donnell of Delaware in 2010 or Todd Akin of Missouri in 2012), the political heat of Obamacare could be tempered.
But don’t count on Jeff Merkley being able to distract voters from the effects of Obamacare, Monica Wehby says, if she is the Republican nominee. Says the pediatric surgeon and mother of four: “He can’t use the usual ‘war on women’ stuff.”
Michael Warren is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.