Defending Obamacare on deep red turf

Alison Lundergan Grimes made big news the other day by refusing to say whether she would have voted for the Affordable Care Act. She did say: “I am not and will not be for taking away insurance that 400,000 Kentuckians just recently got access to.” But Grimes’ position remains careful. She subsequently followed up by clarifying that the law would look “different” if she’d been in the Senate.

It’s worth noting, however, that some Democrats in Kentucky are willing to describe Obamacare — or, at least, the state exchange there — as a big policy success story.

It didn’t attract notice earlier this week, but a very pro-Obamacare Democrat, Elisabeth Jensen, won the primary to challenge GOP Rep. Andy Barr of Kentucky’s 6th District. During the primary Jensen ran an ad attacking Barr and Mitch McConnell for wanting to repeal Kentucky Kynect, as opposed to the overall law – the idea being that the exchange is a success and popular in a state where everyone hates Obummercare.

Jensen tells me she will campaign on Kynect as a success story in the general election. “It is something that I believe in, and it’s going to be part of my campaign,” she said in an interview. “We have collected a great database of stories — individuals who didn’t have health care before, who are saving money now, people who like it. I anticipate that closer to the general election we will use these stories in ads and mailers. Kentucky Kynect has been a great success here.”

To be sure, Jensen faces a very steep climb because of the district she’s running in, so this isn’t a good test case for a pro-Obamacare message. Cook Political Report rates the race as “likely Republican.” Cook analyst David Wasserman says Jensen probably can’t surmount her main problem, which is that voters in rural counties outnumber Lexington Dems in the district. But he notes that her effort to campaign on Kynect will be “worth watching” to see if she can “move the needle” among hard-to-win voters by making the case that repeal would “result in the loss of health care for low income rural residents.”

So, yes, that will be worth watching. Also noteworthy: Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear regularly describes the law as a big success, as does Dem Rep. John Yarmuth, whose Louisville district will be key to Grimes’ hopes for beating McConnell. Yarmuth has suggested Grimes hit McConnell hard over repeal.

What would happen if Grimes described Kentucky Kynect — not Obamacare, but Kynect — as a success, by saying: “In Kentucky, we got it right?”

Look, the argument for Grimes keeping Obamacare at arm’s length is understandable. Her situation is obviously nothing like Jensen’s. With popular Governor Beshear evangelizing for Kynect and hitting McConnell over repeal, that leaves Grimes free to achieve distance from Obama and instead focus on jobs, the minimum wage, and equal pay. The Grimes camp is determined to avoid getting drawn into Washington arguments. She is focused on grounding her campaign in the state and contrasting that with McConnell’s chief vulnerability, his decades in Congress that have done little to alleviate Kentucky’s economic travails.

But even if that makes some sense, the idea that a Democrat must refrain from openly describing Kynect as the policy success that it is – the exchange has signed up over 400,000 people for health care, large numbers of them previously uninsured, many coming from a very poor, unhealthy, rural region — is really unfortunate and depressing.

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UPDATE: In fairness, Grimes has repeatedly said she applauds Beshear’s work in expanding health care to hundreds of thousands in Kentucky.

UPDATE II: I also spoke about this to Dem pollster Celinda Lake. She tells me she conducted statewide polling in Kentucky this year and found that Kynect polls very positively, in contrast to Obamacare, which is underwater.

“She could say, `In Kentucky, we got it right. I’ll take Kentucky values to Washington,” Lake says. The idea would be to localize the issue and focus people on something they like — the state exchange — separating it from the hated Obamacare and driving home that McConnell would take coverage away from hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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