In Arizona, Wisconsin and elsewhere, conservative GOP governors known for clashing with teachers are now campaigning on pledges to boost teacher pay or spending on students.
And after the bitter fight over Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, a handful of Republicans are trying to turn the #MeToo movement against Democrats, advancing accusations of sexual wrongdoing or assault against their opponents.
Poll after poll shows health care as the top issue for voters. Democrats repeatedly have said that the GOP, which is intent on repealing the Affordable Care Act, will strip Americans of the core protection of coverage for those with preexisting conditions. In the campaign’s final stretch, the messaging from Republicans is in part an acknowledgment that the Democratic argument has resonated with voters.
And on other issues, with their control of Congress and statehouses at risk, Republicans appear to have concluded that the best offense is a good defense.
“I think it’s a defensive maneuver, a sign that the messaging from the Democrats has started to draw some blood with the attacks, and Republicans are trying to forcefully respond,” said Nathan Gonzales, publisher of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter.
The turnabout on health care comes after several election cycles in which Democrats faced constant Republican attacks over passage of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, in 2010. Republicans ran on repealing and replacing the law, attack lines that proved effective in their campaigns. But once they gained unified control of Washington with Donald Trump’s election as president two years ago, they failed to deliver.
Since then the Affordable Care Act has become more popular, and Democrats are now the ones attacking Republicans for trying to take away protections that Americans have come to rely on, forcing Republicans to respond.
In Missouri, Senate candidate Josh Hawley is among the Republican attorneys general who filed a lawsuit earlier this year arguing that Obamacare is unconstitutional. It has become a flash point in his campaign against Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, who accuses Hawley of trying to score political points over Obamacare while taking people’s protections away.
But recently Hawley began running an ad in which he discloses that one of his young sons has a rare chronic disease and proclaims, “We know what that’s like. . . . I support forcing insurance companies to cover all preexisting conditions.”
Hawley argues that preexisting conditions can be covered outside the context of the Affordable Care Act. He would force insurers to offer plans for people with preexisting conditions at the same price they do to everyone else, while giving the federal government the responsibility for picking up the tab for insurance costs exceeding $10,000.
Health experts say that the result could be skyrocketing costs for consumers — and for the federal government — possibilities Hawley’s proposal glosses over.
In Pennsylvania, GOP Rep. Lou Barletta, who is running for Senate against Democrat Robert P. Casey Jr., posted an emotional video on Twitter over the weekend in which he discusses his young grandson who is being treated for cancer — and lambastes Casey for running an ad accusing Barletta of voting to limit protections for people with preexisting conditions.
During his years in the House, Barletta voted dozens of times to repeal or revamp the Affordable Care Act.
In Wisconsin, GOP Gov. Scott Walker posted a video in which he tells viewers his wife is diabetic, his mother is a breast cancer survivor and his brother has a heart condition.
“Covering preexisting conditions is personal to me,” Walker says in the video. “Plus, it’s just the right thing to do.” Wisconsin, like Missouri, is among the states suing to overturn Obamacare.
Republican candidates have run into difficulty defending their stance on preexisting conditions because many current GOP members of Congress cast repeated votes to repeal Obamacare. The GOP health-care repeal bill that passed the House last year would have retained the requirement for insurers to cover people with preexisting conditions, but unlike current law, it would have allowed them to be charged much higher rates; the legislation died in the Senate.
The issue flared Monday during a debate in Arizona, where two House members are vying for a Senate seat: Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema and GOP Rep. Martha McSally.
As Sinema brought up McSally’s votes to overturn Obamacare and its protections, McSally angrily accused her of perpetuating an “outright lie.” Noting ads on the issue all over the country, McSally argued, “The Democrats have nothing to run on, and so they’re choosing to play with fear.”
In May, McSally rallied fellow Republicans to support the repeal-and-replace bill, urging colleagues in a closed-door meeting ahead of the vote to get it done, with an expletive for emphasis.
In a debate Tuesday night, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) embraced the law’s protection for preexisting conditions. Five years ago, in his push to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Cruz was at the forefront of a 16-day partial government shutdown to try to force Obama to defund the law. Cruz’s gambit was unsuccessful.
As Republicans repeatedly vowed to keep the core protection, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told Reuters in an interview that Republicans could try again to repeal the Affordable Care Act if they win enough seats in congressional races next month.
As Democrats focus on the law’s core protection, it may be because they have found it works to their advantage.
“Democrats have spent millions on polling and focus groups that have led them to the conclusion that using preexisting conditions as a central issue will help them either persuade swing voters or motivate their base,” said Chris Wilson, a GOP pollster working on races around the country. He criticized Democrats for running “cookie-cutter” campaigns on the issue but acknowledged Republicans cannot allow the attacks to go unanswered for too long.
Health care is not the only issue on which Republicans are offering proposals that are more typically heard from Democrats. After a national wave of teacher walkouts, a number of Republican governors and gubernatorial candidates are running on promises of maintaining or increasing education spending. These include Walker in Wisconsin, Gov. Doug Ducey in Arizona, and Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt in Nevada.
In Texas, Cruz announced, “It’s time to give teachers and other public servants fair retirement pay,” and signed on to bipartisan legislation aimed at adjusting an accounting formula that can limit Social Security benefits for public employees. Last year, Cruz voted with his party to roll back an Obama administration rule aimed at boosting creation of retirement accounts for private-sector workers.
And amid fallout from the Kavanaugh hearing, with surveys showing a growing gender gap in which female voters favor Democrats, a number of races have seen Republicans portray Democrats as hypocrites on women’s rights by pointing to allegations that they have committed abuse or sexual assault — in each case, borrowing the language of the #MeToo movement.
In Ohio, for example, a tag team between a Republican candidate and a political PAC has put Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) on the defensive. Me Too Ohio, a group founded by Republicans last month, has run TV spots calling on Brown to resign over allegations made during his 1986 divorce from his first wife. In an affidavit, Larke Recchie said that Brown had “bullied” her and once shoved her during an argument.
“His ex-wife and other women have a right to be believed,” said a narrator in Me Too Ohio’s first ad.
Rep. James B. Renacci (R-Ohio), Brown’s challenger, immediately echoed the demands in the ad. At their first debate, on Sunday evening, Renacci said that Democrats like Brown who had opposed Kavanaugh’s nomination had set up a moral test that they themselves could not pass.
“They said if you meet that standard of conduct, an unsubstantiated claim, that you cannot serve in Washington,” Renacci said. “You better start setting a standard of conduct for substantiated claims.”
Recchie has asked Renacci and Republicans to stop using the divorce records in their campaign; for the first time, she is appearing in a TV ad, in which she says she’s “proud” of Brown as a senator and as a father and grandfather. At the debate, Brown stared directly at Renacci and said that the Republican was hurting a family that did not ask to be thrown into politics.
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” Brown said.
Even the handful of Democrats who backed Kavanaugh have been subject to Republican attacks. During the confirmation hearings, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) began attacking her opponent Phil Bredesen over the handling of sexual harassment claims while he was governor. After Bredesen came out in support of Kavanaugh, Blackburn kept up the attack, portraying the Democrat as an enemy of women.
“Phil took a little while to make his mind up,” Blackburn said at their final debate last week, in Knoxville. “It could have been because of the sexual harassment claims against his administration, when he was governor.”
Defending himself, Bredesen said there had been an issue with an employee.
“We got rid of him. We tried to help the victim every way we could,” he said.