In each election the parties try to leave enough political breadcrumbs so that afterwards they can claim a mandate. (See, we mentioned roads in the second debate so we’ve got carte blanche to spend on infrastructure!) Seven months before the election, the effort to characterize the implications are well underway.

Sen. Mitch McConnell-Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Sen. Mitch McConnell (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

After liberals realized Democrats were not about to “run on Obamacare,” many decided it wasn’t going to be a big issue anyway. No, really, they said the whole thing would be a footnote. We didn’t buy it then and the latest polling from Pew/USA Today shows how off-base that talking point was:

In looking ahead to this fall’s elections, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to view a candidate’s position on the Affordable Care Act as very important to their vote. A new national survey finds that 64% of Republican registered voters say a candidate’s stance on the health care law will be very important in their voting decision, compared with 52% of Democrats and 45% of independents.

The new national survey by the Pew Research Center and USA TODAY, conducted April 3-6 among 1,010 adults, finds more continue to disapprove (50%) than approve (37%) of the 2010 health care law. Last month, the balance of opinion was similar – 53% disapproved of the law, while 41% approved. Six-in-ten (60%) voters who oppose the health care law say that a candidate’s stance on the health care law will be very important to their vote, compared with about half (48%) of voters who support the law.

When you consider Republicans are more enthusiastic about voting in November, it stands to reason that the electorate will have a very sizable contingent of anti-Obamacare voters for whom Obamacare is very important. (The president should be very thankful we don’t have a system with national referendums.)

Why wouldn’t the Democrats want to make this election about Obamacare? The last thing they need is for voters’ final verdict (i.e. the last midterm) during the Obama presidency to be a thumbs down on the accomplishment they are most proud of. And if, as is very possible, that verdict is enough to flip the Senate to a GOP majority, Democrats really don’t want the main issue to have been Obamacare.

Meanwhile, there will be an actual and inescapable verdict within the Republican Party as soon as we hit the primaries. The “establishment” candidates (backed by business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and mainstream donors such as American Crossroads) are facing off against folks such as Matt Bevin (Ky.), Chris McDaniel (Miss.), Greg Brannon (N.C.) and Milton Wolf (Kan.), who are backed by groups such as FreedomWorks, Madison Project and Senate Conservatives Fund. (A few candidates, such as Rep. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Ben Sasse in Nebraska, have endorsements from both tea party-type and establishment groups.) If the tea party challengers to mainstream incumbent Republicans lose most of their races, it will be a significant statement by primary voters, usually considered the most conservative segment of the GOP.

It is worth remembering that in Colorado, tea party favorite Ken Buck already got out to spare Cory Gardner a primary, and that the tea party was never able to find a viable candidate to take on Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.). In a sense, the tea party already conceded two contests.

The Beltway operations that claim to have their pulse on the grassroots will have some trouble explaining serial defeats. And if the GOP goes on to win the Senate the message will be loud and clear: The way to govern is to nominate and run capable, mainstream Republicans. What a concept.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.