The attacks are ready. Democrats just need Republicans to go ahead and pass the bill.
Republicans in the House of Representatives have been racing to a vote on President Donald Trump’s health care overhaul, and on a parallel track, Democratic strategists have been preparing to make the GOP pay for even considering the controversial legislation.
Through focus groups and polls, Democrats have come up with a tailor-made message that forgoes a broad indictment of the bill in favor of a targeted approach, one focused on specific groups of voters – including older Americans – the party considers essential to next year’s midterm congressional elections.
“There are some issues in politics that are hard to develop a clear 30-second message for,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist working with Protect Our Care, a coalition of liberal groups that have banded together to fight the repeal of former President Barack Obama’s landmark achievement, the Affordable Care Act. “This is not one of those.”
Democratic research on how to use the Republican vote on the health plan, scheduled for Thursday, has yielded surprising conclusions: Party strategists now say that even if Trump’s health care plan becomes law, they don’t think the expected loss of health insurance for millions of Americans should be a major component of their 2018 offensive.
Instead, strategists and researchers are crafting messages and pitching ads aimed at middle-class voters and the elderly – two groups who stand to face the biggest losses from the end of the ACA.
Already, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee – the political arm of Senate Democrats, charged with protecting 10 red-state incumbents during next year’s elections, including Sens. Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Bill Nelson in Florida – released an ad Tuesday calling the GOP bill a deal-breaker for middle-class families.
Indeed, the preparation by researchers and party operatives has led to confidence on the left that whatever happens to the GOP plan, the political damage is done and Democrats are poised to come out on top.
A Fox News poll released last week found that just 34 percent of voters approved of the GOP legislation, compared with 54 percent who didn’t. Other surveys have painted a similarly dour picture for Republicans.
Republicans, themselves readying for the 2018 contest, say they’re confident that changes to the bill – some of which House Speaker Paul Ryan unveiled this week – will make it more politically palatable.
But Democratic Party operatives already have evidence to wield in ads – the dour assessments from the Congressional Budget Office and criticism from the AARP. Using this, they see the GOP health plan as perhaps their best opportunity to win over enough seniors to make 2018 difficult for Republican candidates.
“The truth is already out,” argued Andrew Bates, spokesman for American Bridge, a Democratic super PAC.
“With these insignificant changes, congressional Republicans just admitted that they know what the CBO has already told the public: Trumpcare would be a severe blow to America’s seniors,”
Democrats say the tack is born out of political necessity as much as opportunity: Older Americans are expected to vote in big numbers during next year’s races, but the party has struggled mightily with them in recent elections.
A repeat performance could doom the party to another disappointing night of returns.
“It’s not that Democrats are going to win seniors,” Ferguson said. “But given how large a share of the electorate they will represent in a midterm, winning a percent or two . . . can be the difference between winning and losing.”
Last year, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton because of his strength with voters over 45, exit polls showed, besting her by 8 percentage points with the group, 52 percent to 44 percent.
Party strategists say targeting older Americans means reaching out to the extended families of these men and women, who might be forced to help pay for their parents’ or grandparents’ extra costs, just as much.
Democrats’ focus on seniors explains in part why they don’t consider broader attacks about men and women losing their health insurance to be as potent, despite the attention it will receive from many liberals. Party strategists say that although the loss of coverage is a negative for the GOP, voters simply care more about their own finances than the plight of others.
Playing offense is a role reversal for Democrats, who have been under siege in health care politics since 2010, when the ACA became law.
The GOP made the new law a major issue in the four subsequent campaigns, including last year’s presidential race, when Republicans repeatedly highlighted the ACA’s rising premiums in many of the state-based health care exchanges.
The law has become more popular of late, though the differences are slight. In February, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 48 percent of adults approved of it, compared with 42 percent who didn’t. That was the first time since August 2015 that a plurality of Americans backed the ACA.
Political predictions frequently prove wrong, and in the case of a midterm election cycle with a new and unconventional president, strategists from both parties urge caution when talking about the electoral impact of legislation.
Right now, in fact, internal dissent from the GOP’s moderate and conservative wings has raised serious concern among Republican officials that the bill may never become law. GOP leaders in the House were still wangling reluctant members to vote “yes” on leadership’s plan.
“It’s a battle, no question about it,” said Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster. “But I’m skeptical that it’s not going to work out as well as Democrats think it will.”
Republicans also say the bill can and will change, especially when it reaches the Republican-controlled Senate. There, GOP strategists say they hope senators make the measure more generous to older Americans while softening some of its other harder edges.
Whether those changes affect how Democrats talk about the legislation next year, however, is another matter.
Alex Roarty: 202-383-61783, @Alex_Roarty