Democrats Are (Slowly) Learning to Love Obamacare

Vulnerable incumbents like Mark Pryor and Kay Hagan are backing into talking about the law.
Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Democrats won't be mounting a big political offensive around the Affordable Care Act any time soon, but they're beginning to test the pro-Obamacare waters.

Heading into the 2014 midterms, Republicans continue to hold a clear advantage in the politics of Obamacare. And even if the tide does ultimately shift for the law, it almost certainly won't happen by November. Still, there are signs that Democrats are slowly becoming more confident talking about the health-care law, or at least parts of it.

"There is a palpable comfort that didn't exist as recently as six months ago," said Chris Jennings, who worked on health-care strategy in both the Clinton and Obama administrations. "I think we're in transition, moving from a defense to an achievement strategy."

If that transition is happening, though, it's still in its very early phases.

Democratic strategists cautioned against reading too much into the trickle of pro-Obamacare messaging some candidates have embraced. The law is finding a place in Democrats' campaigns often as a byproduct of some other political need, they said, not because of a broader strategic shift within the party.

They downplayed, for example, the recent ad in which Mark Pryor of Arkansas—one of the Senate's most vulnerable Democrats—highlighted popular provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The ad shows Pryor, appearing alongside his father, discussing his own bout with cancer and saying he "helped pass a law that prevents insurance companies from canceling your policy if you get sick, or deny coverage for preexisting conditions."

Many liberal pundits were ecstatic about the spot, proclaiming that Democrats finally understood how to win on Obamacare. But Democratic strategists said that wasn't the most important element; the ad is "very much about Mark telling his personal story," and not about making a pro-Obamacare argument, said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

"This is not a response ad by any means; this is a bio ad, this is an ad about who he is. They would have run this ad regardless of what the politics of ACA are," a Democratic strategist said.

Similarly, Senator Kay Hagan has made the law's Medicaid expansion a key component of her bid for reelection in conservative North Carolina, which has rejected the coverage expansion.

Democrats' emerging confidence comes as the law is taking a smaller role in Republicans' attack ads. GOP candidates and allies in a handful of states—including North Carolina—have shifted from an all-Obamacare-all-the-time advertising strategy to one that incorporates Obamacare into a larger message about jobs and the economy.

All those trend lines are pointing in the same direction, but that doesn't mean Democrats have suddenly won the upper hand on Obamacare.

Presented by

Sam Baker is a healthcare correspondent at National Journal.

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