Can Democrats Neutralize Obamacare?

Earlier this week, a Politico story revealed that Democrats were circulating a memo explaining how vulnerable candidates for 2014 can neutralize Obamacare as an issue in the midterms. The memorandum was circulated to Democratic House candidates. Democrats in the House have already had to deal with Obamacare in two election cycles after most of them voted for the bill (which narrowly passed, 219-212) in 2010.

In the 2010 midterms, House Democrats suffered a crushing blow. Republicans gained solid control of the House, picking up 63 seats. The unpopularity of Obamacare, which helped trigger the rise of the Tea Party in 2010, was a critical factor in the rout of House Democrats. Voters threw out Democrats who supported the bill, as well as those who were allowed to vote "no" by Nancy Pelosi once a majority was secured. Republicans also picked up seven Senate seats in 2010.

Democratic senators up for re-election in 2014 are facing voters for the first time since their votes for the Obamacare legislation in 2009 and 2010. Several who were swept to victory in 2008 with the decisive win by Barack Obama would face challenging races this year even without the Obamacare overhang: seven states where Democrats have to defend a Senate seat in 2014 -- Alaska, West Virginia, South Dakota, North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Montana -- were carried by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012.

Generally, midterm elections provide a slightly better mix of Republican-leaning voters than is seen in presidential election years (a higher percentage of white and older voters). Various polls show Republican candidates even or ahead in six of the seven states, trailing only in Alaska by a narrow margin. West Virginia and South Dakota are open seats. Montana is held by an appointed senator.

In the other four states, Republicans will charge that the incumbent Democratic senator cast the deciding vote for Obamacare, which achieved exactly the 60 votes needed to break the GOP filibuster on the legislation. Each senator can be individually blamed for the legislation passing.

In several other states that Obama carried in 2012 -- Michigan and Iowa among them -- Republicans are well positioned to pick up open Senate seats or to mount a serious challenge to defeat first-term Democrats (New Hampshire, Colorado, Virginia and Minnesota have first-term Democrats). If 2014 proves to be a wave election, the number of Democratic Senate seats at risk could grow to ten or more.

The attempt to insulate Democrats who voted for Obamacare legislation is fraught with risk for the party. President Obama and his administration have done everything in their power to protect Democrats in the midterms by unilaterally pushing back start dates for various sections of the legislation -- such as the employer mandate -- until 2015. They also pushed back the open enrollment period for individuals in 2014, moving the start of the second annual enrollment period a few weeks past Election Day.  This was to avoid anger about higher premium prices offered on the exchanges in the second year, assuming the mix of enrolled people in the first year proved to be unusually expensive to cover for insurance plans (too few young and healthy, too many older, sicker enrollees).

The Obama team had assumed that once the enrollment numbers are in for the first year, complaints about the program would soon subside. While congressmen such as Illinois Senator Dick Durbin continue to tout a number of 10 million enrollees to date, that number appears to be vastly overstated. After eliminating exchange enrollees who were substituting exchange polices for cancelled individual policies, and once Medicaid enrollment numbers are analyzed to separate out only those associated with the Medicaid expansion due to the new law, the net enrollment may only be a third or a fourth of the “advertised” numbers. Also, some of those with cancelled policies will go without insurance this year.

The Obama campaign team is relying on diversions to combat the unpopularity of the new law. Unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, income and wealth inequality, and the “war on women" are designed to turn the page, to create a playing field where Democrats can sell themselves as caring and Republicans as heartless. However, Democrats had complete control of the White House and both houses of Congress when they passed Obamacare and the near $900 billion stimulus in early 2009, and recent polls show that economic insecurity and jobs are still very important issues for voters. It will be difficult for Democrats to blame Republicans for creating the economic conditions of the last five-plus years.