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Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.)

Reform Update: Vulnerable Dems wary of trumpeting ACA on campaign trail

By Catherine Hollander
Posted: April 4, 2014 - 4:15 pm ET

Even as President Barack Obama this week celebrated surpassing the milestone of 7 million Americans enrolled in health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act, congressional Democrats will still be wary of championing the law's accomplishments in their mid-term election runs.

“What you'll see is people talking about protecting it and making it work better,” said Michael Czin, national press secretary for the Democratic National Committee, when asked about Democrats whose seats are most at risk in the November midterm elections.

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That's precisely how Democrats in tough campaigns, like Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), have handled the sticky issue of Obamacare in the past. Landrieu introduced legislation that would compel insurers to continue offering plans that don't meet the minimum coverage standards required under the Affordable Care Act by grandfathering them in. The White House said it would veto a similar, although not identical, bill introduced by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.).

On Tuesday, Landrieu praised the law's open-enrollment figures. “Today's enrollment announcement confirms what I have said since Day One—the Affordable Care Act holds great promise and is getting stronger every day,” she said in a statement. But, she added, “I have also said since Day One that the Affordable Care Act is not perfect. No law is. That is why I continue to push to make it work even better, including proposals to expand the number of ways people can purchase coverage.”

Along with Landrieu, three other Senate Democrats are in tight, toss-up reelection fights, Charlie Cook of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report wrote last week. They are Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.). In the House, the Cook Report rated 13 Democratic seats as a “toss-up or worse.” Republicans have spent millions attacking those candidates about Obamacare, and Republican response to the 7-million enrollment figure didn't indicate a sudden change of heart.

“Given that the intent of Obamacare was to cover the uninsured, the president's health care law is still a colossal failure. Boasting about enrollment numbers doesn't change that,” Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group behind a number of ads targeting vulnerable Democrats, said in a statement after the enrollment figures were released.

Expect Democrats to widen the discussion beyond the ACA to broader economic issues. “This election is about a choice,” the DNC's Czin said. “Democrats want to preserve the law, they want to make it work, but there's a whole host of other issues that speak to core economic issues” —such as immigration reform, minimum wage and pay equity—that will also be in play. “Healthcare is part of that economic argument,” Czin said.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) downplayed Obamacare as a central campaign issue on Tuesday after the figures were released. “We're not running on healthcare; we're not running away from it,” Pelosi told reporters.

Democrats will focus in 2014 on drawing a contrast between the values articulated in the White House budget, released last month and a new fiscal 2015 budget put forward by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) earlier this week, she said.

One major reason Democrats may not be ready to embrace the ACA on the campaign trail is the public's divided opinions about reform. The number of Americans with unfavorable views of the health-reform law still outpaces those who say they favor it, 46% to 38%, according to a survey released last week by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But the gap between those who support and those who oppose the law is closing, supporters of health reform point out. A separate poll conducted by The Washington Post and ABC News released this week found that overall support for the law had risen to 49% percent in March, up from 40% in November.

If public opinion continues to move in favor of the ACA, Democrats may change their campaign tunes, one analyst believed.

“It's not the 7 million (enrolled) so much as the change in public opinion that's been building over the last two or three months as a result of the exchanges getting fixed and working at least moderately well,” said Steve Murphy, a Democratic strategist and managing director of the political media firm Murphy Vogel Askew Reilly. “I think Democrats are going to be more emboldened because the polling data tells them to be.”

Catherine Hollander is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.

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