WASHINGTON — The bitter legislative battle over health care reform is finally over, but the political war has just begun, and the fallout is being felt across the country and in Missouri.
Both parties, however, believe they have the advantage.
Republicans hope to parlay the anger into big victories in November. Some are even talking about winning back the majority in Congress.
"It's fired up a lot of people," said Lloyd Smith, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party. "The question is, can we keep them engaged all the way through November?"
Buoyed by successfully passing health reform, Democrats hope to re-energize their supporters and keep the expected midterm election gains for Republicans to a minimum.
They contend that some of the health reform bill's immediate impacts — such as lowering drug costs for seniors and banning the withholding of coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions — will be a political slam dunk.
"Chicken Little was full-throated from the Republicans," said Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri. "The sky's not going to fall. There's going to be some positive things that people are going to be seeing in the coming months."
Indeed, some polls already show a bump in public support for reform and for President Barack Obama. But polls can be fleeting, and the political terrain in America can shift faster than Jeff Gordon at Daytona.
Missouri may be as good a place as any to measure the political fallout. It’s smack-dab in the middle of the country, campaigns are often nail-bitingly close, and it features a race for an open Senate seat that will likely be one of the most-watched contests in the nation.
The leading Republican Senate candidate, Rep. Roy Blunt, opposed the health care reform bill and has eagerly adopted the campaign slogan that his party intends to run on: “Repeal and Replace.”
He refers to his likely Democratic opponent, Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, as “Rubberstamp Robin” to tie her to Obama on health care reform and anything else with the stamp of the White House or congressional Democrats.
It’s a logical strategy in a state where the president had a 56 percent disapproval rating last month, according to a Rasmussen survey, and where support for reform was lagging.
Perhaps illustrative of campaign tactics to come, Blunt used the Republican rage over health reform last week to link Carnahan to Fidel Castro after the communist Cuban leader told an interviewer that passage of the bill was a “miracle.”
“Viva La Carnahan-ObamaCare!” headlined a Blunt news release.
The Carnahan campaign called the move “petty and ridiculous.” But, Castro aside, it has treated Obama and health reform cautiously. Carnahan supported the bill, but with some reservations, an aide said, and has kept her distance from Obama, its biggest champion.
Carnahan was a no-show for the president’s recent appearance in St. Louis, where he campaigned for health care reform and raised money for her. Supporters have said the two will share a stage down the road.
How long the political fervor over health care reform will last is unclear. But the GOP’s Smith said: “I wish the polls were closing right now.”
To be sure, the rowdy demonstrations on Capitol Hill, the vandalism at congressional offices and threatening phone calls to some lawmakers illustrate how emotionally charged the atmosphere has become.
“I think people are very upset with the way it was shoved through, and I think they’ll remember it all the way to November,” said Dan Duckworth, a tea party organizer in Cass County who criticized the recent acts of vandalism and similar tactics against supporters of health care reform.
Duckworth, a retired computer network designer, said the Senate race in Missouri is high on his grassroots group’s radar: “We’re online, we’re conversing back and forth, we’re talking to everybody we run into, at coffee shops, at church and everywhere we go.”
Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said there’s “no question” that health care reform will help some Democrats this fall, but “the real big question is what it does among independents. There’s no evidence that I’ve seen that independents are being swayed.”
The fate of candidates such as Blunt and Carnahan, most observers suspect, will be tied to what their parties on Capitol Hill do from this point on.
Will the timeworn but probably true Clinton-era adage “It’s the economy, stupid” govern what Democrats do between now and November? Or will they overspend their political capital and force their members to take tough votes on similarly contentious issues, such as cap and trade and immigration reform?
“How many times can you ask someone to walk the plank?” said Roy Temple, a Democratic strategist who worked for Carnahan’s father, the late Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan.
Will Republicans, who lost the health care fight after a year of being billed as “the party of no,” double down on their bet by pushing for repeal and hoping that their strategy will finally pay off in the fall?
Only time will tell.
“The real challenge for Republicans here is to find a way to be positive,” said Steven Smith, an expert on congressional politics at Washington University in St. Louis. “The last presidential election turned heavily on a lack of confidence that Republicans had the tools, had the ideas for addressing the problems that face the country.”