A Florida referendum on Obamacare?


    If you take a break from winter and visit the Gulf Coast of Florida, don’t turn on the TV – unless you relish being blitzed by political ads about Obamacare.

    The St. Petersburg area is currently Ground Zero in the ongoing war over health reform, thanks to an impending special House election in one of America’s few swing congressional districts. There once was a time when a race like this would cost maybe 500 grand, but not anymore. The current tab, from outside groups alone, tops $4 million – and the race still has three weeks to go. It’s the first federal contest of 2014, and both parties are anxious to get the bragging rights.

    Obamacare isn’t the only issue in play – as Tip O’Neill reputedly reminded us, “all politics are local” – but rest assured that if Alex Sink triumphs, her fellow Democrats will cite the win as proof that it’s safe to stump for the reform law; and that if David Jolly gets the job, his fellow Republicans will cite the results as proof that Obamacare will be a drag on the president’s party.

    In politics it’s easier to attack than defend, so Jolly seems to have the advantage. And monetarily, he has the wind at his back. The heaviest expenditures have targeted his Democratic opponent, mostly for ads that link Sink to Obamacare. It would appear that those ads are working. On paper, Sink should be way ahead in this race – she’s a former gubernatorial candidate who lost by an eyelash in 2010; Jolly is a Washington lobbyist (a pejorative phrase these days) – but a Tampa Bay Times poll shows Sink with a single-digit lead. Probably because likely voters are ill-enthused about Obamacare (47 percent opposed, 43 percent in favor). Jolly supports total repeal.

    Democrats nationwide are watching to see whether Sink can frame the issue to her advantage, or at least defuse it. She has indeed settled on a message, one that Democrats hope (against hope?) to use in other races. In a new TV ad, the narrator tells voters: “Jolly would go back to letting insurance companies deny coverage. His plan would even force seniors to pay thousands more for prescription drugs.” Then Sink appears and tells voters: “We can’t go back to letting insurance companies do whatever they want. Instead of repealing the health care law, we need to keep what’s right and fix what’s wrong.”

    Thus, the likely Democratic message template: Zap the Republicans for wanting to return to the bad old days of insurance industry hegemony; trumpet the popular features of Obamacare (like guaranteed coverage for people with pre-existing health conditions, and lowering seniors’ prescription drug costs by closing a Medicare loophole).; and insist that fixing the law is better than throwing the whole thing out.

    Meanwhile, Sink supporters are trying to attack Jolly on other fronts; Republicans say that Sink’s partisans are merely trying to “change the subject,” but Democrats want to persuade swing voters that the GOP is ideologically out to lunch. For instance, a pro-Sink super PAC is targeting the fact that Jollylobbied for a group that championed the privatization of Social Security. That message is obviously aimed at seniors, who tend to vote heaviest in low-turnout special elections. (This March 11 special will fill a vacancy. The longtime Republican incumbent, Bill Young, died this winter. Jolly used to work for Young.)

    We can’t judge the effectiveness of the Democratic Obamacare strategy until the votes come in. Some in the party are actually optimistic. They contend that Obamacare is overhyped as a Republican weapon. After all, the president won re-election in 2012 after signing the law and campaigning about it. The law didn’t prevent the Democrats from picking up House and Senate seats in 2012. And in 2013, Republican Chris Christie and Democratic Terry McAuliffe won gubernatorial races after agreeing to expand Medicaid in accordance with a key Obamacare provision.

    But 2012 was a presidential election year, when turnout is typically highest. Turnout is lower in midterm and special elections; they’re most typically dominated by the older, whiter, and ideologically ticked off voters. And the biggest outside spender in Florida, the National Republican Congressional Committee, has been blitzing the airwaves with an ad aimed directly at those voters.

    That anti-Sink ad is replete with lies and half-truths. For instance, it says that Obamacare features “a $700-billion cut from Medicare for seniors,” whereas, in reality, these are projected administrative savings that don’t affect services to seniors; in fact, the recent congressional Republican spending plan features the same $700-billion savings. The ad also claims that Obamacare will supposedly “cost our economy up to 2.5 million jobs,” whereas the reality is far more nuanced. Obamacare subsidies will free lots of people from “job lock” (the need to keep a job just for the health coverage); they’ll be able to choose whether to stay in the full-time workforce, and on what terms.

    But ads like that could put Jolly over the top. Nuance means nothing when passions are running high. The aforementioned motivated voters are jonesing to guzzle the Kool-Aid, and sink Sink in the process. We’ll know soon enough. And to the victor goes the spin.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1


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