Democrats in Obamacare Denial

by Jim Geraghty
Liberal commentators whistle past the graveyard after Florida defeat.

Liberals and commentators who don’t want to see a Democratic wipeout in the midterm elections have taken this reasonable argument:

David Jolly’s narrow victory in Tuesday’s special election in Florida was not based solely upon his opposition to Obamacare.

. . . and are transmogrifying it into this implausible argument:

David Jolly’s narrow victory in Tuesday’s special election in Florida was not based upon his opposition to Obamacare, and there’s little or no reason to think Republicans can ride the issue to victory in November.

Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg:

“For sure, the rollout mess hurt the president and shifted the focus away from the hated Republican Congress,” Greenberg says. “But in the battlegrounds, the voters are split down the middle. This is not a wedge issue. Voters still want to implement and fix. Democrats can, and should, engage on health care.”

Brian Beutler:

Looking at this race in isolation, you have to disentangle a bunch of connected factors to suss out how much impact Obamacare had. First, start from the fact that this historically GOP-leaning district went very narrowly for Obama in November 2012. Then correct for the fact that the special election took place in March 2014, no Obama on the ticket, and Obamacare central to the GOP campaign. But then recorrect for the fact that a talented Libertarian candidate in this elderly district probably siphoned more votes away from Sink than from Jolly (though that’s unclear as well). Add in subjective candidate quality critiques, fundraising, counterfactuals and so on and so on, and it’s suddenly extremely difficult to say how much narrower Sink’s defeat would have been were it not for Obamacare — or if Obamacare was truly decisive.

Greg Sargent:

There are too many variables in play to say whether this means Dems will be in serious trouble in states like Michigan and Colorado many months from now. Maybe they will be, but we just don’t know yet. Does yesterday’s loss prove that Dem “keep and fix” message is also fatally flawed in statewide races? Anything is possible, but it’s unclear what alternatives Dems have, and again, we just don’t know yet.

Victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan. Sure, you can point to other factors, although the sudden revisionist history that Florida’s 13th congressional district is some sort of Republican stronghold is particularly disingenuous, considering in how many recent cycles the late Bill Young, the preceding Republican representative, cruised along based upon his longtime incumbency and his perch on the Appropriations Committee.

Democrats thought they had a good chance of winning early on in this special-election cycle, and they had a lot of compelling reasons to think so: They nominated a candidate who had run statewide and nearly won a governor’s race in 2010. They were running against an opponent who had never run before, used to work as a lobbyist, recently divorced, and was running around with a much younger girlfriend. The elderly demographics suggested a true swing district, a jump ball between the parties.

Democratic donors and liberal groups didn’t spend $6.2 million down there on a lark.

What’s more, Democrats had reasons to hope Sink would be reasonably inoculated on the Obamacare issue. She never voted for it. There was no video of her echoing the president’s pledge, “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan.” As an outsider to Washington (although not state Democratic politics), she had room to pose as a partial critic of the program, criticizing the cuts to Medicare Advantage. She didn’t have to deny or excuse the parts of the program that flopped. Her game plan was to acknowledge Obamacare’s failures but promise that she could “fix” the program, not repeal it, when she got to Washington. She executed that game plan.

But the game plan didn’t work among the folks who ended up casting ballots – or at least, not well enough.

The turnout for Republicans was darn good for a special election, and there’s some evidence building that the GOP is finally developing a technically proficient get-out-the-vote program. But a passion-stirring issue like Obamacare, with its myriad catches, glitches, costs, complications, and delays, greatly assists a get-out-the-vote effort.

Put simply, if a flawed candidate like David Jolly can get traction – not automatic victory, but traction – against a Democrat who never voted for Obamacare in a swing district, how much will the issue help a better Republican candidate against an incumbent in a red state? How much will the issue help, say, Tom Cotton against Senator Mark Pryor in Arkansas? Or — presuming he wins the primary — Representative Bill Cassidy against Mary Landrieu in Louisiana? Or – again, presuming a primary outcome — North Carolina state-house speaker Thom Tillis against Senator Kay Hagan? Or former Alaska attorney general Dan Sullivan against Senator Mark Begich?

Even in purple or light blue states, the anti-Obamacare message will be carried by better candidates in November. How much will the issue help Representative Cory Gardner against Senator Mark Udall in Colorado? Ed Gillespie against Mark Warner in Virginia? Terry Lynn Land against Representative Gary Peters in Michigan? (Recall that GOP pickups in South Dakota and West Virginia are considered pretty safe bets, and Montana may be one as well.)

Beutler adds:

I know conservatives like to believe they can play this one-note symphony for eight straight months, all the way to a resounding November crescendo, but there’s little evidence that this issue is paying off significantly for Republicans now, let alone that it will prove so durable. And even if it paid off measurably in March, it could still fall apart as frustration with the rollout and cancellations subsides, and Republicans begin grappling with what to do about constituents who are enjoying new benefits.

That sounds familiar. After the 2010 midterms, Democrats told themselves that Obamacare would get more popular as parts were unveiled. Then they told themselves that the rollout would show America that their fears were overblown. Then they told themselves the public would warm to the complicated new law once Healthcare.gov stopped crashing. Now the thinking is that Obamacare opposition will dissipate as a powerful political force driving high GOP turnout between now and November.

Any day now!

– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.