Candidates aren’t talking about Obamacare much — so why won’t the ads go away?


(EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo)

This post was updated at 3:00 p.m.

During a primary forum in Wisconsin last week, four Republicans competed to prove they were the most conservative candidate in the 6th District. Woe be it to voters who will have to decide, since most of the candidates agreed on nearly every question, including the fact that Obamacare should be repealed.

State Rep. Duey Stroebel called the health-care legislation an "unmitigated disaster." Many of his opponents made similar doomsday proclamations about the health-care law.

The same rhetoric echoes around yet-to-be resolved down-ballot GOP primaries throughout the country.

In Kansas's 4th district, the two congressional candidates are, again, competing to be the person who loathes Obamacare most. Incumbent Mike Pompeo released an ad at the end of June bragging about how he had voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act 57 times.

An ad released by incumbent Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) in June says that he has voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act 57 times as part of his commitment to keeping and creating jobs in Kansas. (PompeoForCongress via YouTube)

 

In a candidate forum earlier this week, his opponent, former congressman Todd Tiahrt, argued that Pompeo had instead voted to support the Affordable Care Act by virtue of his votes to fund the government, which funded the Health and Human Services Department, which funds the Affordable Care Act. The issue was so important to both candidates, a local TV station contended, that it decided to fact check the claim (a local professor said Tiahrt's comment "doesn't pass the smell test.")

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They are sure to continue talking about it, regardless of what voters think. A recent local poll showed that 38 percent of Kansans thought jobs and economy was the most important factor in who they would vote for. Twenty-four percent said it would be Obamacare.

In the Tennessee Supreme Court elections, the Tennessee Forum and the national Republican State Leadership Committee are trying to push out the current bench over its somewhat-tenuous connection to Obamacare. The state Supreme Court justices were appointed by Democratic then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, but are up for a retention vote this year. Although the court has never deliberated an Obamacare-related case, they did choose the state's current attorney general, who decided not to join a lawsuit challenging the health-care law that was filed by several other states. Thus, they must go.

There are plenty of other primaries where candidates have been talking endlessly about health care. Data from Kantar Media’s CMAG showed that 27 percent of ads run by Republican candidates and conservative outside groups focused on Obamacare, according to a recent Bloomberg story. However, there's another thing that unites these races, besides their anti-Obamacare enthusiasm. They are also all elections most people probably haven't heard of. In races that have already gone into general-election mode, talk of Obamacare has all but evaporated as a major campaign message, as candidates sample the other issues that have a bit more spunk at this stage in the midterms: immigration, veterans affairs, government dysfunction. The list goes on and on, but Obamacare isn't really on it.

Anti-Obamacare talk has basically gone to the minor leagues this summer. Whether it's going there to retire -- pushed out by some good news for the law and inefficacy as a campaign issue -- or had gone into rehab for the big leagues this fall depends on what the political landscape looks like come September.

Still, regardless of whether this year's Republican primary winners find it prudent to discuss Obamacare on the trail this fall, they couldn't have gotten that far without convincing donors and conservative voters -- people who cast ballots in midterm primaries are usually the most passionately ideological people in the country -- that they had a worthy amount of disdain for the health-care law. Even if they aren't running ads on Obamacare, realizing they can get a bigger popularity jolt out of immigration or veterans issues, this doesn't change the fact that they are candidates who would vote against Obamacare-related policies if they were elected.

The fact that the campaign trail was initially saturated in anti-Obamacare rhetoric also prevented any Democratic candidates from running on the issue. While there are many candidates who have been chosen because of their opposition to Obamacare, basically no one has been nominated as Obamacare's defender. No one will be elected for his or her support of Obamacare, either, thanks in large part to the heavy anti-Obamacare push that has dominated so many media markets this primary season.

There are also the outside groups who have continued to run anti-Obamacare ads in a few big Senate races. As a Cook Political Report points out, it's not the premier campaign issue anymore, but these groups care enough -- and think voters care enough -- to keep pushing Obamacare. Crossroads GPS ran a new ad against Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) in Arkansas this month...

Conservative group Crossroads GPS released this ad against Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) saying his was the deciding vote for Obamacare. (CrossroadsGPSChannel via YouTube)

 

... as well as new Obamacare ads against Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.).

It's important to remember that Crossroads GPS's strategy didn't work too well during the 2012 election. Only 14.4 percent of the $70.6 million they spent went toward their desired result, according to the Sunlight Foundation. Far more interesting is to look at Americans for Prosperity, which plans to spend more than $100 million this year and has had great success in influencing state politics the past two election cycles. At their Defending the American Dream Summit in Dallas in late August, there will be two panels on Obamacare. Why are they still running ads on Obamacare, when there are so many other issues to spend their money on?

In large part because they've thought of a way to hit Democrats on two issues with one hook, as they did in blasting Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.)...

...And partly because they know that there are plenty of conservative voters who will be mobilized by this issue -- even if the campaigns aren't as keen to focus on it themselves. And if Americans for Prosperity can get a few anti-Obamacare locals to vote -- and maybe volunteer for a phone bank -- they can likely persuade them to vote for conservative candidates on less sexy down-ballot tickets. Many of these close Senate races are in states -- Louisiana, North Carolina, Georgia  -- that didn't accept the Medicaid expansion portion of the health-care law. Whether those states will continue to refuse to expand depends upon the state government staying conservative. Getting anti-Obamacare voters out this year -- or getting more conservative Supreme Court justices, like many in Tennessee are trying to do -- would help keep that true.

Even if Obamacare never comes back as a major national issue this year, all the money spent against it is still working hard on the state level, and it has prevented Democrats from ever saying a peep in its defense. And the Republican primaries that never make prime time will continue to keep the issue alive on the right while everyone else moves on to fresher campaign fare.

Correction: This post has been updated to remove a reference to the Wisconsin 6th District Republican primary candidates' support of impeachment -- only one candidate at the forum explicitly endorsed impeachment, contrary to local news reports. A reference to a rally outside Sen. Debbie Stabenow's office has also been removed -- it occurred in 2012, not 2014.

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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