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Obamacare Impact on Virginia Vote Steers Strategy in 2014

By Julie Hirschfeld Davis and John McCormick
November 07, 2013 12:00 AM EST 56 Comments

Republicans cite their 2.5-point defeat in the Virginia governor’s race as proof that Ken Cuccinelli would have reversed his fortunes if he’d hammered earlier and longer on Obamacare, an issue the attorney general said tightened the contest in its final days.

Democrats argue Terry McAuliffe’s narrow Nov. 5 victory amid a glitch-plagued rollout of the insurance program shows they can navigate politically around public opposition to the law, particularly once healthcare.gov is fixed.

The party that’s correctly reading the election results could have an advantage heading into the 2014 elections in which Republicans are seeking to hold their House majority, while Democrats are fighting to maintain control of the Senate.

At the moment, the partisan team properly assessing the environment is anyone’s guess. In exit polls, 27 percent of Virginia voters called health care the most important issue, and Cuccinelli had only a slight advantage with them -- drawing support from 49 percent to McAuliffe’s 45 percent.

What isn’t in dispute is that Republicans plan to make 2014 the third consecutive election cycle in which they put health care front-and-center in their campaigns, relying on public dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama’s marquee domestic achievement to defeat Democrats who backed it.

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Virginia is “a cautionary tale for a lot of Democrats who are running in 2014,” Republican strategist Kevin Madden said, adding that his party’s candidates will make Obamacare “the center of the universe” to illustrate their differences with Democrats in next year’s congressional races.

Drawing Distinctions

“Republicans are convinced that the law is unsustainable and is at the heart of the argument of how you draw contrast of the opposing world views of government,” added Madden, a top aide to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Democrats, who’ve said that neutralizing public discontent over the health-care measure will be their biggest challenge heading into the midterm balloting, discount the significance of the issue in the Virginia race.

“This notion that there was this big anti-Obamacare surge at the end because of what Cuccinelli did, I think is not right,” David Axelrod, a former top Obama adviser, said in an interview, calling it a “convenient story” Republicans are telling to try to put “lipstick on a pig” after their loss.

“I’m not suggesting that the problems with the rollout of Obamacare are an asset for Democrats, nor do I think it’s a silver bullet for Republicans, who at the end of day have seen their approval rating rise not one iota during this last few weeks,” he said.

Counterproductive Focus

Geoff Garin, McAuliffe’s lead polling expert, said in the closing days of the race that Cuccinelli’s focus on the health-care measure had “actually been counterproductive,” even with voters who disapproved of the law. It solidified their view that he was an ideological candidate with a national agenda that had nothing to do with Virginia, said Garin.

“The Republican pledge to make this election a referendum on the Affordable Care Act just didn’t work,” Kelly Ward, the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a conference call with reporters. “Voters want people who are improving and implementing and giving people access to health care, and not people who are aggressively obsessed with repealing it.”

Still, Democrats don’t dispute they face challenges in insulating themselves against Republican criticism about the law and its faulty implementation, which has dragged down Obama’s approval rating to 40 percentage points, according to the daily Gallup Poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent. Their risks may rise if there’s a rash of premium increases and plan cancellations persist.

Democratic Risks

The danger is particularly acute for Democrats preparing to face voters in politically competitive or Republican-leaning states, who have begun openly criticizing the law’s shortcomings and proposing a variety of legislative fixes.

Fifteen Democratic senators facing re-election next year and Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, the head of Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, met at the White House yesterday with Obama to discuss “challenges with implementation” of the health-care law, the White House said.

One of them, Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, issued a news release saying he had pressed Obama during the session to extend the open-enrollment period for the federal exchanges beyond the current March 31, 2014 deadline.

Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia is proposing to delay for one year the penalty individuals would face if they failed to enroll in health insurance plans by the deadline.

Red State

And Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, seeking a fourth term in a state Obama lost by 17 percentage points, introduced legislation this week to allow individuals to keep their existing health plans as long as they are current on payments.

Democratic strategists said candidates can mitigate their vulnerability by talking about their concerns about the law, proposing fixes, and blaming insurance companies for lapses in coverage or rate increases.

“Democrats need to go on offense instead of defense,” said Democratic polling expert Celinda Lake of Lake Research, whose recent George Washington University Battleground Poll conducted Oct. 27-31 found that Democrats hold an 8-percentage-point edge over Republicans with voters on handling health care. “We still have a platform of credibility” on the issue, she said.

That could dissipate depending on what happens with the health measure as it unfolds, Democrats concede.

“It’s way too early to make predictions about whether Obamacare will be a boon to Republicans or Democrats or whether it’s a wash,” said Axelrod. “That will be impacted in the coming weeks and months.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at jdavis159@bloomberg.net; John McCormick in Chicago at jmccormick16@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

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