Republicans will be emboldened to aggressively challenge Obamacare after winning control of the Senate on Tuesday. For the first time since passage of the landmark healthcare law, Republicans will control both legislative chambers and the agenda in Washington.
Republican Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, who won a surprisingly comfortable re-election victory and is poised to become Senate majority leader, has vowed to repeal Obamacare “root and branch.”
Media organizations also called key races for the GOP in Arkansas, Colorado, Montana, West Virginia, South Dakota, Iowa and North Carolina.
Still, undoing Obamacare will be extremely difficult considering Republicans won't have the 60 votes needs to break Democratic filibusters, let alone the two-thirds majority required to override a presidential veto.
“I don't expect the president to wake up tomorrow and view the world any differently than he did when he woke up this morning,” McConnell said in his victory speech. “He knows I won't either."
There's also the politically dicey proposition of taking away benefits from the newly insured. Nearly 15 million individuals have signed up for coverage through the exchanges or enrolled in Medicaid under provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
But Republicans will likely at least make a token effort to repeal the law in its entirety since so many candidates promised to do so on the campaign trail. If that fails, most political observers expect them to try and pick off unpopular provisions of the bill such as the individual and employer mandates and the medical device tax.
Republicans will also wield gavels, giving them the ability to lead investigations and hearings about implementation of the ACA. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is expected to chair the powerful Committee on Finance, and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is poised to chair the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
The exact partisan makeup of the Senate won't be known for another month. That's because neither candidate surpassed the 50% threshold in the Louisiana Senate race. There will be a runoff between Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu and GOP challenger Bill Cassidy on Dec. 6.
Republicans were also expanding their majority in the House late Tuesday. Four years ago, Republicans seized control of the House by picking up 63 seats, in large part owing to a backlash over passage of Obamacare.
Demonization of the law was a crucial piece of the GOP election strategy in 2014. More than 800 different televisions ads aired during the election cycle referenced Obamacare or the ACA, and almost all of them were attack ads run by Republicans, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation. In some competitive states, including North Carolina, anti-Obamacare ads ran for more than a year leading up to Election Day.
The ACA wasn't the dominant issue of the campaign. In most polls, it ranked well behind jobs and the economy, and was clustered among a bunch of second-tier issues. But the unpopular healthcare law was emblematic of Obama's broader struggles, with his approval rating hovering just north of 40%.
“You don't necessarily have to mention Obamacare,” said Republicans Arkansas state Rep. David Meeks, at a political rally last month in Conway. “You can just say Obama's policies and that's just going to naturally pop into your head.”
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) was one of the few candidates to try and utilize the ACA to boost his candidacy, cutting a commercial that cited his battle with cancer as evidence of the need for prohibiting discrimination against individuals with pre-existing conditions. But Pryor ended up receiving a double-digit drubbing from GOP challenger Tom Cotton.
Medicare was also the focus of attacks in some congressional contests, particularly those in states with a disproportionate share of elderly voters. But they don't seem to have found much traction.
Democratic challenger Gwen Graham knocked off GOP Rep. Steve Southerland in a Florida district that includes Tallahassee and Panama City. Southerland had employed a common Republican attack line against Graham, suggesting that she supported cutting $700 billion from Medicare, a claim that's been widely debunked.
In another Florida district, spanning from Key West to Miami, Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia pilloried GOP challenger Carlos Curbelo for wanting to end the “Medicare guarantee,” a claim that Politifact deemed false. That attack didn't work either. Garcia lost by three percentage points.
Follow Paul Demko on Twitter: @MHpdemko