The announcement of eight million Obamacare sign-ups may finally be enough to jolt commentators into realizing that maybe, just maybe, the Republican plan to build an entire campaign against the law for the next six months might suffer from a few imperfections. The President, for his part, seized on the moment to urge Democratic candidates to stand proudly by the law’s achievements — and to attack Republicans for wanting to strip them away.
But my expectation is that on the Democratic side, things aren’t going to change that much. Presuming the Next Big Obamacare Disaster doesn’t materialize, we’ll probably see these Senate races begin to increasingly revolve around — wait for it — the candidates. The fading of the awful headlines could make it easier for Dems to do what they’d always planned to do — make these elections into a choice between the people on the ballot in the general election.
Brian Beutler has a well argued post urging Dems to get more aggressive in using mounting enrollment to turn repeal into a liability for Republicans. You’ll see some of this. In Louisiana, the Medicaid expansion will be debated this spring, and Mary Landrieu will hit opponent Bill Cassidy over it. In Michigan, Gary Peters will hit Terri Land over her equivocations on the expansion there. National Dems will amp up efforts draw media attention to the deepening problems with the GOP repeal stance.
But presuming Obamacare does fade from the headlines, Dems will most likely do all they can to un-nationalize these races and turn them into localized contests. In Kentucky I’d expect Alison Lundergan Grimes to continue avoiding engagement on Obamacare — despite the success of the exchange there — and instead focus on issues like the minimum wage and jobs and Mitch McConnell’s unpopularity as a longtime creature of Washington. In North Carolina Dems will focus on Thom Tillis staffers’ affairs with lobbyists and his harsh fiscal policies as state House speaker. In Arkansas Dems want the race to be about GOP Rep. Tom Cotton’s support for Paul Ryan’s Medicare cuts and opposition to the farm bill. In Alaska they want it to be about GOP challenger Dan Sullivan’s lack of deep roots in the state. And so on.
One reason Republicans were so excited by the awful website rollout debacle, and all those cancelled plans, is that they provided new information to tell voters about Obamacare, after a political debate that had gone on for literally years. Obviously Republicans will work hard to keep the focus on the law and on #Obummer himself, keeping the races nationalized. In response to the new enrollment numbers, Republicans uniformly emphasized the “millions” of lingering Obamacare victims and declared their determination to keep up the fight against the ACA until the end of time, suggesting they think they can keep it central.
The terrible headlines of last fall amounted to a kind of grand Obamacare reckoning Republicans had long hoped for, and as such, that glorious moment still seems to exert a powerful emotional pull. But come on — majorities now want to move on from the Obamacare debate. And how “new” will information about cancelled plans seem in a few months? This stuff will likely start sounding very much like the same old years-long political argument. Meanwhile, there are already signs premium hikes may turn out to fall well short of “double digit” predictions, potentially averting another Obamacare Disaster Republicans had been banking on.
On balance, Obamacare will probably remain a net negative for Dems. But with Republicans beginning to voice support for its general goals, increasingly acknowledging the law’s beneficiaries, and continuing to struggle with their stances on repeal and on the Medicaid expansions in their states, the law could turn into more of a political wash than anything else, leaving behind races that end up being about candidates, local issues, and the economy. All of these races are going to be long, unpredictable, and very, very tough. Given the map, Republicans probably will continue to have a 50-50 shot or better at winning the Senate. But if they do win it, I doubt Obamacare will be the primary reason why.