When the 2016 election kicked off, health care was far from the hottest topic in Minnesota congressional races.
With terror attacks and Donald Trump dominating the headlines, candidates weren’t talking about plans and premiums as much as they had in elections past.
It’s not as if Republicans had begun to accept Obamacare, but after several cycles of pushing the repeal-and-replace messaging — without delivering results — GOP candidates were eager to take on other issues.
How things change: in the span of a few fall weeks, Minnesota authorities announced rising premiums for MNsure, the White House said Obamacare premiums would spike nationwide in 2017, and Gov. Mark Dayton himself said the Affordable Care Act was “no longer affordable to increasing numbers of people.”
All of a sudden, health care has moved from the sleepy section of a stump speech to the sleeper issue of the cycle. Republicans are determined to make the most of this late-October gift — does that put any Democrats running for Congress in real trouble?
Republicans find a winning issue
Republicans are wringing all they can out of this turn of events, gleeful to find that their repeal-and-replace Obamacare messaging is more salient than it has been in years.
Some Minnesota GOPers describe the stream of news as a game-changer for their candidates, and those involved in campaigns say it’s the main thing people want to talk about at events and on their doorsteps.
Republicans feel the issue is giving them much-needed ammunition that could potentially make a difference in a close race.
In each of Minnesota’s three most competitive U.S. House races, October public polling from KSTP/SurveyUSA backed up that sentiment.
In the 8th District, the poll found that health care was the top issue for voters, with 26 percent saying it was the most important topic to them, edging out national security. Forty-five percent of those surveyed said they supported repealing Obamacare.
In the 2nd and 3rd Districts, the polls found health care was the number three issue, behind the economy and national security. In both districts, over forty percent of respondents said they wanted to repeal the law, while pluralities of respondents wanted to keep it with changes, or expand it.
When Minnesota insurers announced potential premium hikes for MNsure participants in early September, Republican congressional candidates pounced.
On September 1, 8th District GOP candidate Stewart Mills had his first press release that explicitly attacked Rep. Rick Nolan over his support of Obamacare. On September 6, 2nd District GOP candidate Jason Lewis had one of his own hitting Democrat Angie Craig on the issue.
Minnesota was buzzing over health care already when Dayton made his comments, which attracted national attention — and even a favorable retweet from Donald Trump. The White House’s announcement on premiums rising in 2017 only added fuel to the fire.
Republican campaigns and national GOP groups doubled down on anti-Obamacare messaging: the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has poured millions into Minnesota’s three most competitive races, has bankrolled hours and hours of TV ad time to hit Democrats on Obamacare.
They have focused particularly on Craig: one NRCC ad features a quote from Craig in support of the Affordable Care Act, immediately followed by Dayton’s quote.
“Even Governor Dayton admits, we’re already getting crushed,” a voiceover says ominously. “And Craig would double down, costing families thousands more.”
The health care issue has also been a useful weapon for 3rd District Rep. Erik Paulsen in his race against state Sen. Terri Bonoff. In ads and mailers, the Republican incumbent has been emphasizing the rate hikes and seeking to pin blame on Bonoff, who has served in the legislature since 2005.
Democrats respond cautiously
The health care news of the past two months represents a perfect storm at the exact wrong time for the Democrats, said Steven Schier, a professor of politics at Carleton College.
Schier said that Craig and Nolan are particularly vulnerable to this line of attack from the GOP. Citing Craig’s background in health care and past support of Obamacare, he said “this is the first time you’re seeing negative ads on a salient issue that might work against Angie Craig. It may serve to tighten the race.”
Schier added that the ACA news could be a “really serious problem” for Nolan, compounded by polls showing the 8th District favoring Trump over Clinton.
In the face of an all-out assault from Republicans, some Democrats in tight contests are dialing back their praise of the law.
Nolan is typically a reliable defender of Obamacare, and supports an expanded federal government role in increasing access to health care.
He was quoted on Wednesday, however, by Tom Coombe of the Ely Echo saying that while the ACA did a lot of good things, “what it didn’t do was get costs and premiums under control.”
In a statement to MinnPost, Nolan said that House Speaker Paul Ryan should open up the legislative process to allow legislators to amend Obamacare to make it more affordable.
“Overturning the Affordable Care Act without ensuring that children can stay on their parents’ insurance until the age of 26, without guaranteeing that those without preexisting conditions will have access to care, or without ensuring that women do not pay more for health insurance than men would be a step backward for the American people,” Nolan said.
Most DFLers are toeing a similar line, saying that Obamacare has helped people access much-needed care, and now work should begin on making the system more affordable.
But there’s nuance there, and less than two weeks before the election, Republicans are going to keep going for the jugular.
In a statement to MinnPost, Mills referenced Dayton’s remarks, saying Obamacare and MNsure are “melting down… as this devastating health care experiment collapses, Nolan stubbornly is doubling down for an even more extreme, expensive, and expansive single payer government takeover.”
According to Schier, though the timing is bad for Democrats, they still hold advantages that will help them weather the storm. “You’ve got a Republican Party organization that is grossly deficient compared to the Democratic organization,” he said. “Perhaps that can blunt or limit the degree of DFL losses.”
But Schier maintained that though many Democrats are saying the right things, “people are so fed up with government… it’s just so easy to get people pissed off. This is a great provocation for Republicans.”
Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized Dayton’s comments on the Affordable Care Act.