LEXINGTON — Obamacare looks like it will succeed. But this fall, is it still going to make the Democrats fail?
Republicans failed to oust President Barack Obama in 2012, but they have kept running against him, largely through attacks on his conveniently nicknamed health reform law. And last week, despite fresh evidence that the law is working, House GOP leaders doubled down on their advice to members to make it the central issue of their fall campaigns.
But one of those members in Kentucky, freshman Rep. Andy Barr of Lexington, faces a likely challenge from a Democrat who is more or less embracing the law and is already running radio ads about it.
“Barr voted 19 times to repeal health care reform,” Elisabeth Jensen says in her 60-second spot. “Thanks to Governor Beshear, Kentucky Kynect provides health care to Kentuckians who had no insurance, but Barr, along with Mitch McConnell, voted to end Kynect and let insurance companies drop coverage, deny care and charge women more.”
In this table-turning ad, McConnell plays the same Mr. Unpopular role that Obama does in spots from McConnell and other Republicans, and Jensen is a skilled performer for a first-time candidate. Her smooth voice drops an octave when she says McConnell’s name, and goes up two when she makes the point about women, improving incredulity.
Then she delivers the big punch: “Andy Barr voted 19 times to cancel insurance policies of 400,000 Kentuckians, while taking contributions from the insurance industry, AND Barr just voted for a reckless budget that would end Medicare as we know it, forcing Kentucky seniors to pay thousands of dollars more.”
Thus does the ad appeal to Democratic women, who are notably less likely to vote in non-presidential elections, and to seniors, who have the most reliable turnout. And the early mention of Beshear catches listeners’ attention early with a familiar, relatively popular name.
And, of course, the ad avoids any mention of “Obamacare,” instead using “Kentucky Kynect,” adding the state’s full name to the actual brand of the insurance exchange that Beshear created and is among the most successful state exchanges. “It polled well,” Jensen said in an interview.
But Obamacare didn’t, and it isn’t out of the woods yet. Signups exceeded expectations, but we still don’t know how many have paid premiums — which could rise this fall. The Obama administration, perhaps fearing sticker shock, has delayed the reopening of enrollment until after the election. But the insurance industry is sending positive signs; last week, UnitedHealth Group, a big insurer that is selling group policies on Kynect but not individual policies, said it planned to expand its exchange offerings because the new system seems to be working.
Was Steve Beshear a prophet on this? He told The Washington Post in January, “In general, this issue is going to be a winner for Democrats by November of 2014 — whether you’re in a red state or a blue state.” He declined to be interviewed for this column, but spokeswoman Kerri Richardson said his stance hasn’t changed.
Jensen said she hadn’t discussed the issue with Beshear, but said she’s running the ad because she believes his approach will make the state healthier and protect people like her son, who turns 10 on May 14 and has autism and “a unique combination of physical and intellectual challenges.” She said she and her ex-husband, who also lives in the Lexington area, “have worried his whole life about pre-existing conditions and lifetime caps” on benefits. The reforms outlawed both.
Jensen has a good personal story to tell, including her managerial positions at major corporations and her leadership of a nonprofit that promotes education, but many Democrats in the 6th District have been slow to embrace her candidacy because she is a fairly traditional liberal who moved to Kentucky 14 years ago and has never run for office.
Jensen is clearly running uphill. The district’s average lean is 9 points Republican, and all available evidence is that has a clearly unfavorable view of the president. But Jensen seems to be betting that she can differentiate Obama from Kentucky’s version of Obamacare, and use it to drive turnout of more Democratic-leaning voters.
There could be a lesson in this for Democratic candidates for the state House, which Republicans have a fair chance of winning this fall, and for McConnell’s all-but-certain fall opponent, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes — who has said she wants to fix Obamacare’s problems but not repeal it.
Grimes’ campaign gathers much of its energy from women, and there is a potential symbiosis between hers and Jensen’s — “tons and tons in our favor,” says Celinda Lake, a leading Democratic pollster who is working for Jensen. “Alison will be advantaged by high turnout among women” who like Obamacare and other social programs, and “all that’s going to help Elisabeth.”
Might Jensen’s strategy be a forerunner? Grimes seems to avoid the subject of Obamacare, perhaps fearing that she will be drawn into an argument full of Washington talk when a key part of her strategy is to run against Washington. But Jensen’s line about Barr and McConnell voting to end Kynect and cancel the new policies could work for other Democrats, because it attacks Washington figures on humanitarian grounds.
Democrat Ben Chandler, who lost his seat to Barr in 2012, declined to comment on Jensen because he is now executive director of the Kentucky Humanities Council, but he saw some logic in her strategy: “It might have some traction if you were attacking someone on health care,” he said. “If you’re defending a program, you’re in trouble.”
Al Cross, former C-J political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column first appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal.