Late last year, on the first day that Arkansans could buy into the state’s “private option” for expanded Medicaid, a farmer named Mary Francis Perkins got herself covered. Then she got famous. A media firm, which had been tracking the progress of the private option, stayed in touch with Perkins and shot her story for an ad. At the start of January, voters in a special senate election saw Perkins, in her home, explaining how Obamacare actually did her good.
“Because of my Parkinsons, I’ve been denied health insurance for years,” said Perkins into the camera. “Thanks for Arkansas’s private option, I’m covered now.” Her story and the possible fate of Medicaid-deprived hospitals were framed as reasons to vote against Republican state Senate candidate John Cooper.
Millions of dollars have been spent this year on Obamacare-related TV ads. Many of them featured people who look just like Perkins, but blamed the new law for ripping away their coverage at moments of ill health and weakness. Millions were spent in Florida’s special House race, the one that Democrats blew a 20-point lead to lose, the one Republicans claim to have won by ripping apart Obamacare. Democrats, being Democrats, are hopelessly divided. Do they keep panicking and finessing the law, as candidate Alex Sink did in Florida? Or do they “go on offense” and explain what would be lost if the Republicans won?
The Perkins video appears to be an outlier—the only ad in which Democrats defended the health care law by talking to someone who benefited from it. Steve Spencer, who shot the video, said it was easy to shoot but hard to find a taker for it.
“There are compelling stories out there,” says Spencer, “but who can afford to air enough ads to balance the Koch brothers?”
That’s the irony: Democrats perfected this strategy, and Republicans have turned it against them. Americans for Prosperity, founded and partially funded by David and Charles Koch, has found tremendous success with its sob-story ads. When Democrats or fact-checkers have complained about them, they’ve been accused of bullying “cancer patients,” and the search for victims has proceeded.
“Some we've seen from interviews on other news/media,” says AFP spokesman Levi Russell. “Some came to us directly, others we found through their congressman.”
Republicans, whose desires sync up nicely with AFP’s, have crowd-sourced the effort. In January, House Republicans designed an online form to collect complaints from average Americans who hated the law, for whatever reason—“higher premiums,” “lost coverage,” “website problems.” Democrats scoffed, but then more than a dozen Republicans showed up at the State of the Union with special guests—real Americans who hated the health care law. In March, when Sen. Harry Reid started attacking the “phony” anti-Obamacare campaigns being funded by “the Koch brothers,” Republicans accused him of demeaning real people suffering from the law he’d never read.
“There's no question that all the attacks have a chilling effect,” says Russell. “I've talked with a number of people with very compelling personal stories, but are nervous about speaking out. I have no doubt that is exactly the strategy from Reid and others who are working overtime to destroy the credibility of anyone willing to speak up.”
But the Kochs, in the depths of their nefariousness, were just copping a trick from the Democrats. In 2012, the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA realized it would be outspent by Republicans—the Koch brothers being the easiest to demonize—and came up with a narrative strategy. Research director Brennan Bilberry, then just 26, tracked down workers who’d felt victimized by Bain Capital’s investments and sell-offs. They appeared on camera, and the resulting ads cut Romney so badly that he never recovered in Michigan or Ohio. Bilberry did the same for Terry McAuliffe’s 2013 campaign for governor of Virginia, driving around coal country to find people who’d lost out on a settlement approved by the Democrat’s opponent.
“Political people hate to admit this, but the press is a good partner if you’re looking for stories,” says Bilberry. “If you’ve been running campaigns for years, you probably can find people through local organizations, through your field team. They probably know people who’ve been affected in a positive way.”
Maybe they do, but Democrats haven’t figured out how to reach them. Take Families USA, the decades-old health care awareness organization, which regularly connects journalists to sources. Last October, Families USA received $1 million from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to finance more reporting, more vetting, more sharing of stories. That money helped Families USA expand its team of full-time vetters from one to three. It has not, so far, helped any Democrats running terrified from Obamacare.
“We do not pass along stories to political campaigns,” says Ron Pollack, the executive director of Families USA. “When reporters are doing stories, we pass on leads—that’s what we call them—if the individuals consent. But we do not ever send stories to political campaigns.”
The campaigns will simply have to find the stories on their own. They’ve done this before, and located blue-collar-looking people to make the argument for liberalism. Hey, they even did it with Obamacare, when a group called Know Your Care turned the story of one bagel shop owner into a happy cinema vérité case study. But Know Your Care’s been dormant for more than a year. Democrats need to find Obamacare success stories when few want to fund the work, during a midterm election when all the key races are on Republican turf, while the donors are already thinking about 2016.
“There simply is no liberal Koch operation,” complains Paul Begala, a former Clintonite and a strategist for Priorities USA in 2012. “Rather than a national ad campaign, which is not realistic, Dems should look to smart 2014 candidates to engage this issue along [these] lines. Once someone does it, and it works, others will replicate in their states/districts. Do I think Dems should respond to the Koch ads? Absolutely. But it is going to be a piecemeal response.”
Even then it’s not a guaranteed winner. Mary Francis Perkins did everything Democrats could have asked for. They lost the special election anyway. The “private option” that saved Perkins was nearly killed by a Republican legislature that’s on track to win in November.