Health-care law has changed game for Democrats looking to 2014 election

Video: President Obama explained how Americans who wish to keep their health plans can work to do so under his signature health-care law during a speech Friday.

UPPER DUBLIN, Pa. — Few places may better explain how the bungled launch of President Obama’s health-care law has scrambled the political landscape for Democrats than this hamlet north of Philadelphia.

Democrats have been hoping to capitalize on the political fallout for the GOP from the recent government shutdown. If they can do so anywhere, it should be in the suburbs north and west of the city where three adjoining congressional districts represent a confluence of Democratic Party ambitions for the 2014 midterm elections.

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A look at the consumer's route through the HealthCare.gov Web site and the potential failure points.
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A look at the consumer's route through the HealthCare.gov Web site and the potential failure points.

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The 13th District is represented by Allyson Y. Schwartz, a popular five-term Democrat who is the leading candidate for governor against a Republican incumbent widely regarded as the most vulnerable in the country.

The two other districts are held by moderate Republicans: Rep. Patrick Meehan in the 7th and Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick in the 8th. Obama won both in 2008 and lost both by less than one percentage point in 2012. If Democrats are going to get anywhere near the 18 seats they need to take control of the House in 2014, these two are must-wins, and a few weeks ago, with the GOP suffering in public opinion polls, everything seemed possible for Democrats.

The Affordable Care Act may have changed that.

The recent debacle over HealthCare.gov’s rollout may have narrowed whatever perceived advantages Democratic candidates may have had over Republican opponents. In some minds, the health-care law’s flubs have merged with the government shutdown to render an unfavorable verdict on all of Washington.

“No one party’s to blame. All of them are to blame. They’re not working together,” said Rynda Klein, 70, a pharmacist who remembers early stumbles when Medicare was introduced in the late 1960s.

Said Amy Booth of Upper Dublin: “I don’t understand why we have a House of Representatives anymore. It doesn’t do anything. They just send bills to the Senate and watch them die.”

Booth, 52, is a Democrat, and she called the health insurance rollout “a big disappointment.”

“From an administration that was so high-tech during their campaign with data mining and such, it’s surprising that a Web site they build is a complete mess,” she said.

Booth said she will probably vote for Schwartz next year instead of Gov. Tom Corbett (R), the unpopular state executive who could become the first Pennsylvania governor in almost 50 years to lose reelection.

Schwartz knows that her votes on the health-care legislation will be part of her campaign. On Friday, she voted with her party against a GOP effort to delay a portion of the new law, while ­Meehan and Fitzpatrick voted yes, with their party.

“There should have been a nonpartisan reaction to the fact that this rollout of the Web site did not go well,” she said in an interview. “Instead it became a partisan argument, and it shouldn’t have.” That is not likely to change as Election Day 2014 gets closer.

The Republican measure that passed easily on Friday would allow insurers to continue offering plans that don’t meet the standard requirements of the new law. It was an effort to fix a part of the legislation for which the president had to apologize, after it was clear that some people were receiving cancellation notices from insurers, even though he had promised that Americans who liked their health plans could keep them under the new law.

Obama acknowledged on Thursday that the problems with the law have made it tough for Democrats who supported it — and him. “I feel deeply responsible for making it harder for them rather than easier for them to continue to promote the core values that I think led them to support this thing in the first place,” he said.

In an effort to blunt some of the political backlash from the health insurance missteps, Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — House Democrats’ campaign arm — urged his colleagues not to despair and reminded them of Republican Party troubles that dominated the debate before the rollout of the health-care law.

Israel said that although it may be a harder case to make after the setbacks, House Democrats should continue to pitch themselves to the voters as “problem solvers” in contrast with Republicans, whom they have tried to portray as overly ideological.

“Each one of us — and more importantly, our constituents — is painfully familiar with the failures of this Republican Congress so far,” Israel wrote in his memo. “But the worst may be yet to come.”

In an interview, Israel said that the DCCC’s polling in battleground districts shows that a majority of voters — 55 percent — favor Democratic plans “to fix and improve” the health-care law over Republican plans to “repeal and defund” it.

“Voters want problem solvers, not partisan warriors,” he said.

But a big part of the problem Democrats must now solve has to do with the Affordable Care Act.

Among the 39 Democrats who defected on Friday and voted with the GOP to delay a key health-care provision was Rep. Bruce Braley (Iowa), a reliably liberal vote for much of Obama’s agenda in his first term. Braley is the consensus Democratic nominee for the Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) — a seat that Democrats have held for 33 of the past 39 years. Braley represents a district that the president won by 14 percentage points in 2012 and he wants to represent a state Obama won twice but, as evidenced by his vote Friday, Braley has begun to put some political distance between himself and the president.

The reaction among some ­Iowans shows the peril ahead. Jerry Crawford, a longtime Democratic activist, defended Braley’s vote as one that fit with what Iowans want in politicians: problem-solvers who keep their word.

But his vote upset Sue Dvorsky, a former special-education teacher and state Democratic Party chairman. She thinks that bills like the one Braley supported give Republicans more momentum to criticize the health-care law. “Democrats — elected officials and activists — need to buckle down and take a breath,” she said Saturday.

In Iowa, the disappointment in Obama and the health-care law’s rollout is deeper and more personally felt than in much of the rest of the country. That’s because, nearly six years ago, Iowans propelled Obama’s national career with his upset victory in the January 2008 presidential primary caucuses, setting the stage for beating Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

“It’s terrible, it’s painful to watch. We really do know him,” Dvorsky said. “Watching this is gut-wrenchingly painful.”

She said she thinks HealthCare.gov will be functioning well by the Nov. 30 deadline because that’s what the president said. “If I’m wrong, there’s going to be phenomenal pain.”

Across the country in Upper Dublin, Klein said that the trouble with the Affordable Care Act is “very unfortunate” but that she doesn’t think Democrats should worry.

“I think they chose the wrong IT company to figure this out, that’s all,” she said.

“We do need health care,” Klein added later. “But the people that really need it aren’t the outspoken ones standing up and making noise, they’re the ones that really can’t speak for themselves.”

Kane reported from Des Moines. Scott Wilson in Washington contributed to this report.

 
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