Failing in the polls and struggling to craft a compelling message ahead of this November’s elections, Democrats are turning to a new strategy. Or, really, an old strategy: health care.
Placing health care front and center paid dividends for Democrats in 2018 and 2020, when they won both chambers of Congress and the White House after spending months—and millions—reminding voters that Republicans had just worked tirelessly to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.
But as the 2022 midterm season ramped up, Democrats had little fodder to revive that playbook—until Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) opened his mouth.
In a March 7 interview with Breitbart News, Johnson said that if Republicans took control of Congress in 2022, they could “actually make good on what we established as our priorities.”
And Johnson went straight to Obamacare as an example. “If we’re going to repeal and replace Obamacare—I still think we need to fix our health-care system—we need to have the plan ahead of time so that once we get in office, we can implement it immediately, not knock around like we did last time and fail,” he said.
The Wisconsin Republican, who is up for reelection in November, later attempted to walk back those comments, saying he “was not suggesting repealing and replacing Obamacare should be one of those priorities.”
But by that point, it was too late. Democratic organizations had already blasted out a seemingly endless stream of press releases about Johnson’s comments, designed to put vulnerable Republicans on the spot.
House Democrats’ official campaign arm, for example, quickly sent out a half-dozen emails about it. “GOP getting more honest about their agenda,” the release said, before asking if 16 different Republican congressional candidates in various states agreed with Johnson.
Democrats aren’t expecting to get eight months of mileage out of an offhand comment from a rank-and-file senator. But Johnson isn’t the only Republican still talking about repealing Obamacare.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), chairman of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, recently put out a plan that proposed raising taxes on low-income Americans and ending all federal programs, including Social Security, Medicare, and presumably the ACA, unless Congress can reauthorize them.
Those developments have cracked open the door for Democrats to pivot toward an issue that, perhaps more than any other, allows them to set up the contrast they want with Republicans.
“One of the things we have to do is remind people whose side we’re on,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI). “And the stakes couldn’t be higher in this election because Republicans have already demonstrated what they want to do.”
Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who helped set the party’s messaging on health care in several election cycles, argued that Democrats have seen over and over how Republicans “keep putting their hands on the hot stove, again and again” when it comes to health care.
That may be the case for some, but GOP leaders and campaign organizations decided long ago to avoid the issue, after the political winner turned into a surefire political loser. Virtually no Republican in a competitive race in this election year is on the campaign trail professing their passion to destroy the health-care law. In fact, many GOP candidates have even adopted Obamacare’s most popular parts in their own health-care messaging.
Because of that, it’s hard to imagine Democrats’ Obamacare-focused pitch having even close to the same effect it did in 2018 or 2020. But some Democrats believe—or, at least, hope—that Republicans will continue burning themselves on that hot stove. And they are trying to create as many opportunities as possible for them to do just that.
A Democratic aide, speaking anonymously to candidly describe party strategy, told The Daily Beast they “can’t emphasize enough how important” the health-care contrast will be for the party in 2022.
“Unequivocally, Democrats are going to hold Republicans’ feet to the fire on this, and make this an issue for them they have to own and talk about,” the aide said.
Asked about the party’s strategy on Obamacare, Chris Taylor, spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the DCCC plans to remind voters frequently about the GOP’s stances on health care.
“Democrats want to lower the costs of medicines, protect health care, and lower costs for families,” Taylor said. “We’re going to make sure voters know the difference between us and them.”
It’s a good time for Democrats to refocus on favorable turf, given that the current political landscape is bleak for the party as the midterm season heats up. And with the anniversary of the law coming up next week, national and state level Democratic Party organizations have a slate of events planned to keep it on the agenda.
The slumping of their legislative agenda on Capitol Hill, plus the growing political challenge posed by inflation, have forced Democrats to engage in some public soul-searching over what, exactly, their pitch will be to voters.
The chair of the DCCC, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), has candidly acknowledged Democrats’ communications struggles. “The problem is not the voters,” he said last week. “The problem is us.”
It’s much smarter for the Democrat in charge of House campaign strategy to talk about the failings of his party than to just ignore them. But for Democrats, to play the inflation political game is to lose: they can propose as many solutions as they like, but even if they pass, current inflation is a global phenomenon with complex causes.
Republicans know that, in just hammering home the problem and blaming the party in power, Democrats risk looking insensitive—or just out-of-touch if they minimize the impact of rising costs or reject the blame.
And so, Democrats are now trying to talk about inflation, but through the frame of health care. Increasingly, Democrats are framing their health-care talking points in the kitchen-table language of costs.
That might help bail Democrats out. One strategist with access to recent polling information found that voters have given Republicans a 5-point advantage on reducing inflation. But they gave Democrats a 10-point advantage on reducing the cost of health care.
A recent press release from Building Back Together, a Democratic political group, highlighted Johnson’s comments while declaring that President Joe Biden is “laser-focused on lowering costs while congressional Republicans unveil plans to increase strain on working Americans.”
Democrats believe that the COVID pandemic has only underscored that advantage, and that their programs to rein in individuals’ health-care costs—like the ACA—will look even more essential to voters as prices increase on all manner of goods and services.
The biggest problem for Democrats, however, might be that they haven’t yet made good on their lofty promises to enact significant changes to lower health-care costs.
The party’s marquee legislation—the multi-trillion dollar package formerly known as the Build Back Better Act—was supposed to carry measures to lower the cost of prescription drugs and expand Medicaid.
That legislation fell apart last year after months of talks. Democrats are hoping a last-ditch effort to pass a narrower package with health-care measures could succeed, but the odds are not especially good.
Leaving Democratic candidates empty-handed on the campaign trail is a nightmare scenario for many in the party. But right now, operatives insist that the party will not lose credibility with voters if they don’t make progress in expanding health-care access and lowering costs—mostly because they are confident they can persuade voters that Republicans would do much worse.
“Democrats have a credibility contrast no matter what happens when it comes to the issue of health care,” said Jess Floyd, president of American Bridge 21st Century, a major Democratic super PAC. She noted a number of GOP Senate hopefuls in key swing states who have taken actions to dismantle Obamacare, previewing the potential attack lines for Democrats later in the year.
Most Democrats emphasize that health care is just one key component of a broader message that, if successful, could shore up the party’s cred with pocketbook-focused voters.
The party would be overjoyed if they could spend the next year just running against the policy plan proposed by Scott, the Senate GOP campaign chair. His proposal to give Americans “skin in the game” by imposing taxes on those who don’t pay them was a gold mine for the party.
The plan quickly became such a lightning rod that many Republicans, including Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (R-KY), publicly distanced themselves from it. A national GOP strategist told The Daily Beast that Scott’s plan was “incredibly dumb, which is why you haven’t seen many serious Republican candidates across the country embracing it.” Faced with such criticism, Scott has defended his plan as a defiance of “Beltway cowardice.”
In a brief interview in the Capitol, Scott downplayed Republicans’ designs on health care. Notably, Obamacare is not mentioned once in his 11-page document, and he affirmed his support for keeping protections for patients with pre-existing medical conditions.
“I don’t think the Democrats have anything to attack us on,” he said, arguing that Democrats are “not doing anything to make sure people get health insurance, they’re not doing anything to fix Medicare.”
Of course, congressional Democrats tried for the better part of a year to give millions more people health insurance. Some, like Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), believe that the politics of the issue are so bad for Republicans that they wouldn’t even take a pass at Obamacare, or other key health-care programs, if they had the chance.
“When we won in 2018, health care was front and center. It’s an issue that affects everyone, regardless of what their political ideology is, whether they’re political or apolitical,” Kildee said. “Republicans will make a mistake if they decide they’re going to threaten health care again. We’ll make sure people know that.”