Republicans are poised to retake the Senate, but panicky Democrats are assuring themselves that if that happens, it will have nothing to do with Obamacare. “Republican attacks on the health care law dominated the early months of the campaign, but now have largely receded from view,” the New York Times wrote over the weekend, suggesting that even GOP candidates have accepted that, as the White House tweeted in May 2013, “It’s. The. Law.”
But Republicans have not acquiesced to the president’s signature piece of legislation — and they certainly have not been quiet about it on the campaign trail. At The Weekly Standard, Jeffrey Anderson notes that during the week of October 6–12, Republican Senate candidates ran more than 11,000 anti-Obamacare ads, according to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG). The next week, October 13–19, they ran just under 12,000. During both weeks, anti-Obamacare messages far outpaced other advertisement subjects, including budget concerns, unemployment, and immigration. Since Labor Day, reports Bloomberg, Republicans have run more than 51,000 anti-Obamacare television ads alone; since the beginning of the calendar year, more than three times that many.
Republicans are not stirring up a settled issue; they are tapping into existing sentiment. The Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll found in July that 53 percent of people viewed the Affordable Care Act unfavorably. Those numbers appear to be holding. A poll released by Rasmussen on Monday found that 52 percent expect the American health-care system to worsen under Obamacare. Even before October’s anti-Obamacare ad siege, Obamacare was among the top four issues in the minds of likely voters, according to an AP-GfK poll released on October 1. The Democratic polling firm Democracy Corps, reporting in early October, found the same result among voters who had already committed to a candidate. No wonder that even as Democrats tout Obamacare’s popularity, they have furtively rigged its deadlines so that some of the law’s worst features will not take effect until after the election.
The law’s steady unpopularity helps to explain why Republican Tom Cotton, running for Senate in Arkansas, has released three anti-Obamacare television ads, the most recent in late October. Bill Cassidy, running in Louisiana, released an ad in late September in which former Landrieu voters excoriated her for voting for Obamacare. In one of the most closely watched Senate campaigns in the country, Iowa Republican Joni Ernst said on Monday that her first priority if elected would be to repeal and replace Obamacare. (In a Des Moines Register poll released over the weekend, 30 percent of Ernst supporters cited “get[ting] one step closer to repealing Obamacare” as their primary reason for backing her.) Those are just a few examples. Anti-Obamacare ads have been a regular feature in all ten key Senate races, from Alaska to Georgia.
But winning at the polls is only half the battle. It is not enough to recognize that Obamacare is a problem; Republicans must be able to articulate a conservative alternative. Among Republican Senate candidates, only Nebraska’s Ben Sasse and Virginia’s Ed Gillespie have offered detailed, substantive proposals about how a Republican Congress could lay the groundwork for overhauling the Affordable Care Act come 2017. That will help the GOP overcome resistance from Democrats — who (alert the Times) are the ones who have been conspicuously quiet about Obamacare this election cycle. During the week of October 6–12, pro-Obamacare ads were so few that Obamacare did not qualify for CMAG’s list of the top 15 advertisement subjects among Democratic candidates. Indeed, that week Democrats themselves ran 500 anti-Obamacare ads.
Without a doubt, voters have had on their minds a range of issues this election cycle, from unemployment to Ebola to the Islamic State. But every indication is that the president’s health-care law remains unpopular, and that voters are not resigned to it. Republicans, if they take control of Congress on Tuesday, should not be either.