The Entire Republican Strategy for Winning the Senate in 2014, Boiled Down to One Word

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 8 2014 12:15 PM

Obamacare. Obamacare. Obamacare.

The Republican strategy for winning the Senate in 2014 is a single word.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) talks with reporters before attending a Senate Democratic caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol September 30, 2013 in Washington, DC.
If Democrats lose all the open seats in “red states,” they'll need senators like Louisiana's Mary Landrieu to manage to hold on to their seats while still defending the ACA.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Democrats were shocked. They didn’t expect a bill reviving unemployment benefits for three months to get a quick vote in the Senate. On Monday and Tuesday they prepared to condemn the Republicans for heartlessly filibustering it, gathering Real Americans at the White House to condemn the vote. This was, as Politico put it, the fight Obama wanted.

And this was why Republicans didn’t give it to him and Senate Democrats. On Monday, North Carolina Democrat Sen. Kay Hagan, up for re-election in 2014, had stood beside her state’s Democratic legislators to condemn Raleigh Republicans for letting “the people of our state suffer.” North Carolina’s triumphant GOP, which took over the state in 2013, ended extended unemployment benefits six months ago.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

The GOP knew, and its 2014 candidates knew, that Hagan was stronger in the polls when voters were angry at the legislature and weaker in the polls when voters got angry at the Affordable Care Act. Public Policy Polling, the North Carolina-based firm that Republicans typically accuse of liberal bias, found a 10-point surge in Hagan’s negative numbers since the rollout of healthcare.gov. So the GOP decided: Why fight about unemployment insurance when you can remind voters that Obamacare exists, and Hagan voted for it?

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Get ready for 11 months of this, across the Senate races and on Republicans’ terms. The party needs to net six seats to topple Harry Reid. Most of 2014’s key Senate races, the battles to defeat Democrats or replace Democratic incumbents, are happening in states where Republicans “opted out” of Obamacare. These states didn’t set up health care exchanges, which are working fairly well (unless you happen to live in Oregon). These states didn’t buy into the Medicaid expansion.

In North Carolina, Louisiana, Alaska, New Hampshire, and Virginia—all states that rejected Obamacare exchanges—Democrats are running for re-election. (New Hampshire and Virginia are seen as much safer for the party, but the emboldened GOP is trying to recruit former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown and former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie to make races.) In Montana and South Dakota—also Obamacare refusenik states—Democrats are struggling to hold open seats.

For Republicans, what’s the cost of making the 2014 races all about Obamacare? They don’t see one. Republicans are on the repeal-Obamacare team, and they’ll do anything to stop the nation sliding into euro-socialism. They’re never subtle about undermining the law. Why would they be? “I tried to rip out Obamacare by the roots” is an applause line from the Chamber of Commerce breakfast to the Tea Party Patriots candidate forum.

“It’s the broader issue,” said Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, who’s chairing the National Republican Senatorial Committee for this cycle. “It’s not Medicaid expansion. It’s the damaging consequences of the Affordable Care Act. Unless you’re a provider, to an average citizen in a state, it’s not about whether a state has created an exchange or expanded Medicaid. It’s: Oh, my gosh, I can’t keep the policy I had! I can’t get to the same doctor I’ve been going to for years. Those issues are much more significant than the details of what a state has or hasn’t done.”

But they’re not insignificant. Months ago, before the government shutdown birthed the current punt-on-everything, talk-about-Obamacare theory, conservatives worried (and Demorats sort of hoped) that voters would be bought off by “free stuff” in the form of Medicaid and subsidies.  “On Jan. 1, the exchanges kick in and the subsidies kick in,” said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in July 2013. “Once those kick in, it’s going to prove almost impossible to undo Obamacare.”

If Democrats lose all the open seats in “red states”—Montana, South Dakota, West Virginia—they'll need North Carolina’s Hagan, Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, and Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu to manage to hold on to their seats while still defending the ACA, and blaming Republicans for its shortfalls. Landrieu, the most experienced politician in this group, is happy to try.

“I’ve been very focused on this group of anywhere from 200,000 to 300,000 people in Louisiana who work—they may even work full time—but they earn too much money to be on the current tight criteria for Medicaid,” she said on Tuesday. “Our governor, despite the overwhelming evidence from conservative and liberal think tanks—the overwhelming evidence—that it is in the state’s economic interest to expand Medicaid, and expand health care, to middle-class families, with the $16 billion that’s available, has said no. It’s having a terrible economic impact on the state as a whole, and as importantly, to these 200,000, 300,000 people who are working, it leaves them in the cold because they can’t get on the exchange and they can’t get on Medicaid.”

Republicans don’t believe the line will work on voters. Democrats say it already has. Republicans insist that voter anger about Obamacare nearly elected Ken Cuccinelli in last year’s Virginia gubernatorial campaign. Geoff Garin, the pollster for Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe, insists that the Democrats won the issue. McAuliffe’s getting ready to take the oath and govern Virginia for four years, so Garin might not be wrong.

“Medicaid expansion was front and center in our messaging to our GOTV targets, and we made a lot of the fact that McAuliffe wanted to accept federal funding to provide affordable coverage to 400,000 Virginians while Cuccinelli stridently opposed it,” said Garin. “In our post-election polling of our targets, we saw that this issue created a lot of motivation for drop off voters, particularly African-Americans, to turn out, and I expect it can play the same role in mobilization efforts in North Carolina, Louisiana, and Arkansas.”

I asked Landrieu if this made sense to her. Were Louisiana voters going to blame Democrats for any faults with the health care law? Would they see the Medicaid gap as just another float in the liberals’ parade of horribles? 

“No,” said Landrieu. “Based on the governor’s low poll numbers, they see exactly who’s at fault.”

It’s true, Landrieu is polling better than Gov. Bobby Jindal. The most recent statewide Louisiana numbers put her approval at 47 percent and his at 42 percent. But since the rollout of the exchanges, since he reiterated that he’d never expand Medicaid, he was up 4 points and she was down 10.