Even in a quick stop at a barbecue joint in Alexandria, Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie found voters eager for views on his fellow Republicans who, a few miles away in the U.S. Capitol, are trying to overhaul health care.
“What do you think about the Senate health-care bill?” one woman asked as Gillespie finished chatting up the manager of Pork Barrel BBQ on Tuesday.
“Do you take a stand on Obamacare?” another woman asked after he greeted her a few minutes later.
Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee who nearly unseated Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) in 2014, has been trying stay laser-focused on Virginia issues — namely, jobs and a stagnant economy.
But events in Washington — from the fallout of the firing of FBI Director and Virginia resident James B. Comey to President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate pact to congressional Republicans’ attempts to gut Obamacare — have been consuming voters’ attention.
As one of only two governor’s races in 2017, Virginia is a testing ground for Republicans and Democrats across the nation running for office in the era of Trump. A recent Quinnipiac University poll pegged the president’s approval rating in Virginia at 40 percent and found that nearly six in 10 Virginians disapproved of House Republicans’ health-care bill.
Gillespie’s detractors, including Democratic nominee Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, have pilloried him for not taking a firm stance on the legislation.
At the Pork Barrel, Gillespie repeated his common refrain that he was focused on state policies as a gubernatorial candidate and was reviewing the federal legislation. He also pointed to health insurers pulling out of Virginia’s individual market and patients struggling to find doctors as signs that the status quo isn’t working.
“As governor, what I’ve got to do is match our state policies to whatever the federal policy is,” Gillespie told the first woman who asked him about health care, before she interrupted with a question on why she can’t buy the same health insurance available to federal lawmakers.
“I ran for Senate and lost. And you know if I were senator, you know I would be able to adjust that,” he said.
In an interview, Gillespie said his three priorities for the federal health-care overhaul are protecting states such as Virginia that did not expand Medicaid to low-income adults from quicker cuts to the federal program; reducing premiums and out-of-pocket expenses; and making sure patients with serious conditions can still get covered.
“I don’t think people should be dropped from their insurance because of developing a health condition, and we need to make it possible for people with preexisting conditions to get insurance,” Gillespie said. “I’m hoping they’ll be able to address those things over recess.”
Gillespie made similar comments to Newsweek in May, but also said he was open to requesting a waiver that would let Virginia insurers charge people with preexisting conditions more. Such a waiver was included in the House version of the health-care legislation but not the Senate version.
Mary Lagnaoui said she realized Gillespie was at Pork Barrel after spotting a few protesters with crudely drawn signs outside the restaurant. She has been so consumed by health-care-related news that she felt compelled to go inside and get his thoughts.
“What about all the children in poverty that won’t have any health care or dental care?” the Alexandria resident politely asked him.
Gillespie used the question to hammer his key campaign message. “The key is can we get more affordable care? And I think my policies would do that, and the other thing we need to do to is we need more job creation,” he said. “We also have to create more opportunities and more jobs, and help people lift themselves out of poverty.”
Lagnaoui later told a reporter she wasn’t pleased by what she saw as Gillespie pivoting to job creation when lives were at stake.
“I am interested in Obamacare and everyone voicing their concerns,” Lagnaoui said. “It’s funny to hear it come up in a governor’s race, but I think it should be brought up in every race.”