(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg) (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Today, Republicans successfully filibustered a version of the unemployment insurance extension, and UI is now in limbo. Republicans tossed out a host of procedural objections in the process. No surprise: the game plan all along has been to sink the extension while deflecting blame from Republicans by casting it as a casualty of inside-the-Beltway bickering.

Meanwhile, McConnell’s Dem opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, attacked McConnell for opposing the extension, noting that more than 18,000 unemployed Kentuckians have lost benefits, “including 1,200 coal miners in Pike County.”

“We take care of our own in this state,” the Grimes campaign continued. “As Senator, Alison Lundergan Grimes will never turn her back on the hardworking men and women of the Commonwealth.”

This is a reminder that the safety net is going to be front and center in many races this fall, even in red states. To read much of the commentary, you’d think Dems have two choices: either sink under the weight of Obamacare, or run away from it. As Charlie Cook put it, Dems are talking about inequality to “shift the focus” from Obamacare, because it has become a “sore subject.”

That’s true in some ways, but the nuances of what Dems are up to are worth appreciating. Dems aren’t simply looking to shift away from Obamacare, but to shift the terms of the debate over it, by putting it in the context of a larger debate over the safety net, an argument Dems are already engaging pretty aggressively.

Red state Dems are taking a more nuanced approach to Obamacare than some of the coverage suggests. An Atlanta Journal Constitution poll finds a majority supports repealing all or part of Obamacare. But 57 percent support the Medicaid expansion. This informs how Democrat Michelle Nunn is talking about the law.

Given Obamacare’s deep unpopularity in red states, Nunn does not go out of her way to talk about Obamacare, and neither does Grimes. Neither of these Dems are members of Congress, so neither voted for the law, and so they will avoid the Obamacare debate partly to avoid getting tainted by the Washington argument over it. This is also because both will face Washington politicians this fall (Grimes faces McConnell; Nunn will face a Georgia member of Congress).

But when they do have to talk about the law, they shift the discussion to a broader one — over the safety net. Nunn embraced the individual mandate delay, which would have badly undermined the law if it had any chance of passing. But she says we should fix the law, rather than repeal it. And she supports the Medicaid expansion, arguing that it would, among other things, allow uninsured veterans access to health coverage. Grimes has struck a similar balance, criticizing the rollout but also standing up for its safety net component by arguing we should not cut off a route to health coverage for several hundred thousand Kentuckians.

Meanwhile, red state Dems who did vote for the law — Kay Hagan, Mary Landrieu, and Mark Pryor — are in a tougher spot, and are each striking their own balance by criticizing its problems while calling for keeping and fixing it. But Dems like Hagan are aggressively joining the fight over unemployment insurance, and the party committees will be hitting Republicans hard over it.

Now that UI looks dead, it could fade as an issue. But the minimum wage fight is up next, and some GOP gubernatorial candidates — even in red states — will probably make an issue of the Medicaid expansion, as will candidates like Grimes and Nunn, at least to some degree. And so Republicans will want 2014 to be all about Obamacare’s cancellations and higher premiums. But Dems will try to insist on a much broader argument.


UPDATE: This is not to say red state Dems will necessarily use the phrase “safety net.” They may refer more often to “pocket-book issues.” But the basic point stands.