GOP Stocks Up on Obamacare Ammunition for Upcoming Elections

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Before last week’s Florida special election, Republican Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, the man in charge of the party’s 2014 House of Representatives election campaigns, cautioned against reading too deeply into midterm congressional elections, as the results may not be a referendum on the Affordable Care Act. And while he tempered that statement somewhat on the day after Floridians voted Republican David Jolly into office by saying that the Democratic Party should be “pretty panicked this morning,” he was right in noting that upcoming elections will not be just about Obamacare.

Democrats are expected to have a tough midterm election, and the source of the party’s difficulties is larger than any one particular issue, candidate, or president. Nevertheless, the Affordable Care Act is the issue around which candidates across the GOP ticket are building their campaign platforms. The party likely believes that a focus on the law will rally voters, and the stance against healthcare reform also is more than a statement about policy: It reflects a lawmaker’s philosophy about government.

Key to these campaigns are the stories of bad experiences Americans have had with the purchase of coverage through the insurance exchanges created by the reform and the cancellation of policies that do not comply with the requirements of the reform. As Elizabeth Wilner — president of Kantar Media CMAG, which tracks political advertising — told The Wall Street Journal, criticism of the Affordable Care Act is the most popular theme in political ads this year. “People running for dogcatcher are saying ‘Obamacare is terrible’ in their ads. That’s a slight exaggeration, but not much of one,” she said.

It may seem ironic that a great many candidates running anti-Obamacare ads are not campaigning for a seat in Congress, where they would be positioned to change the law. Instead, they are vying for seats in state legislatures or for the position of attorney general. State lawmakers and attorneys general in a number of states played huge roles in limiting the reach of the Affordable Care Act by deciding whether to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid coverage and by joining lawsuits seeking to invalidate the law. As most of those issues are now settled, political ad rhetoric has turned more to philosophical arguments against the law. But many politicians that are running for reelection at the state level are able to point to the votes they cast against the expansion of Medicaid for example and as proof they fought the implementation of the law.

Take the campaign of Eric Eisnaugle, who is running for another term in Florida’s state legislature, which voted against expanding Medicaid coverage. Eisnaugle claimed in a televised ad that he “led in the fight against Obamacare.” Meanwhile, a 30-second campaign ad for Dan Branch, who just won a primary election for Texas attorney general, is much more symbolic. In the final frame, after Branch informs viewers that he has a “special file for Washington’s bad ideas,” the camera follows a manilla folder labeled “Obamacare” as it is fed through a paper shredder. The ad is appropriately titled “Shredder.”

Comparatively, Chip Beeker — who is campaigning for the Public Service Commission in Alabama — aired a spot that is much more explicit in its criticism. “Obamacare is causing our healthcare costs to skyrocket,” he said in the opening moments of his recent ad. “If Obama has his way, our utility rates will be next.”

Premium hikes are still a worry. It’s true that premiums have been increasing for years, but health industry officials recently told The Hill that premiums for policies purchased through the Obamacare insurance marketplaces will double in some parts of the country. This comes  just days after the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, saying that insurance rates would increase in 2015 but grow more slowly than in years past.

In an effort to downplay concerns about rising premiums, she told lawmakers that “the increases are far less significant than what they were prior to the Affordable Care Act.” But that testimony surprised an insurance official who spoke to the Hill. “It’s pretty shortsighted because I think everybody knows that the way the exchange has rolled out … is going to lead to higher costs,” one senior insurance executive told the publication. That official, who works in a populous swing state, said his company expects rates of policies purchased through the exchanges to triple next year.

Still, Democrats argue that Republicans are overplaying the Obamacare card. “In the long run, it will not pan out as a strategy and it won’t pan out as a policy for them,” said Democratic National Committee spokesman Mike Czin to the Wall Street Journal. “If someone wants to run for land commission against Obamacare, it’s a total non sequitur.”

In fact, the anti-Obamacare ads run by conservative candidates have become quite contentious. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tweeted last month: “Republicans are using tall tales to tell people ObamaCare is bad. Democrats have TRUE stories of real Americans whose premiums are lower.” In Republican speeches and in ads paid for by oil magnets the Koch brothers, “we heard about the evils of Obamacare; about the lives it’s ruining,” Reid said in a February speech on the Senate floor.

But “those tales turned out to be just that, tales,” he added. “Lies, distorted by Republicans to grab headlines or make political advertisements.” And it is true that some anti-Affordable Care Act advertisements — including one featuring a leukemia patient in Michigan who claimed her insurance was canceled and her new policy was unaffordable — have proven to be bogus.

Reid’s commentary produced a key question: Why doesn’t the administration have more positive ads? This is not to say that there are no positive messages about the law on social media or TV advertisements, but they tend not to be political in nature. Rather, they are ads sponsored by insurers and the government-run exchanges aimed at encourage the uninsured to “get covered.” It is “the ultimate in mixed messaging,” Wilner told the Journal. “People are seeing political ads saying this is the worst thing ever and also ads telling them to go sign up.”

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