The Obamacare Lead Weight

The unpopular health care law could pull down more Democrats than expected in 2014.

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It's unusual for state legislative elections to have any predictive value, especially as far as national trends are concerned. They are typically very localized, turning on personal relationships, individual popularity and the intensity of the electorate on a few narrow issues unique to the setting, not national policy.

There is no hard and fast rule, but in states where legislators are not term-limited, as they are in Michigan, California and a little more than a handful of others, seats pass down from one party member to another. Rarely does control of a chamber change hands from one party to the other, though it has happened with increasing frequency ever since the Republicans blew out the Democrats in the 1994 elections.

Some states that were traditionally strongholds for the Democrats – like Minnesota – have generally remained that way. Others, like South Carolina and Georgia, have completely flipped, giving solid support and allegiance to the party of Lincoln as they once did to FDR. One state that notably missed this trend, at least in the 1990s, was Arkansas – which no doubt was protected from the GOP incursion by the fact that its former governor, Bill Clinton was, at times, a popular president of the United States, or at least popular enough to make Democrats in his home state feel comfortable staying with the party.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

Now that Clinton has been out of office for well over a decade, things in Arkansas finally seem to be moving in the GOP's direction. Sen. Mark Pryor, son of David Pryor, the legendary former governor and senator, is considered the singularly most endangered Democrat among those in his party seeking re-election. Arkansas' four seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are controlled by the Republicans, as is the state legislature, which flipped to the GOP in the 2012 election.

What makes things interesting, and nationally noteworthy, is the recent special election in moderate-to-liberal leaning state Senate District 21. The big issue in the race, as described by the influential blog Power Line, was whether or not to "continue the Arkansas 'private option' plan to expand Medicaid" that had already passed and been signed into law by Democrat Gov. Mike Beebe.

The GOP's John Cooper was against the plan while his opponent, Democrat Steve Rockwell, was for it. In a stunning upset Cooper won the race with 57 percent of the vote in a seat that had been held by the Democrats almost since the beginning of time – because of an issue closely tied to Obamacare.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Obamacare.]

It's clear the voters don't care much for the Affordable Care Act, Obama's signature health care law. The White House is playing fast and loose with the numbers of people who have actually enrolled, but there is broad agreement that it is well below what it needs to be. Recent estimates put the number of previously uninsured people who have signed up (though not necessarily paid yet) for insurance at 11 percent of enrollees. The other 89 percent of people coming into the system through the deservedly and much-maligned Healthcare.gov website or through state-run exchanges seem to be people who already had some form of insurance last year.

Those who argue that Arkansas was already trending Republican and discount the impact of Obamacare on that one election should likewise look at Virginia.

A traditionally "red state" that has been turning blue over the last eight years, the only sign of life the GOP statewide ticket showed in the 2013 election was just after Obamacare went into effect. It sparked a surge in GOP candidate Ken Cuccinelli's support and, had he campaigned aggressively against the ACA throughout the summer and not had the distraction of the government shutdown, then he might have been able to capitalize more on it.

In state after state, especially the ones where there are critical elections for U.S. Senate this November, Obamacare may act like a lead weight on the races of Democratic candidates. The new law's unpopularity has helped drive down President Obama's job approval numbers and, with them, his party's hopes for holding on to control of the Senate.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

As Sean Trende, senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics, wrote this week, "Polls showing tight Senate races in New Hampshire, Iowa, Colorado and Michigan are met with surprise and disbelief. But they are exactly what we'd expect to see given the president's national job approval rating. I think they're accurate barometers of the state of the races. … The Senate playing field in 2014 is substantially worse for Democrats than it was in 2010."

If a GOP-controlled Senate is truly in the offing, then Obama faces the prospect of trying to govern during his last two years in office with the Republicans constituting the majority in both chambers of Congress – for it is hard to design a scenario in which they win the Senate and lose the House. If this happens, then the dynamic shifts considerably, especially where the ACA is concerned.

Legislation to completely repeal the ACA would most assuredly be the first thing the new Congress would send to the president's desk. And he would just as assuredly veto it and send it right back to Congress, thus drawing the battle lines. Once drawn, the process of negotiation would begin, with the outcome of the next presidential election riding on the results.

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