Hit with a multimillion-dollar barrage of televised attacks, Democrats in tough re-election races want credit for trying to fix the problematic parts of the healthcare law at the same time they claim bragging rights for its popular provisions and allege Republicans will reverse the law's crackdown on insurance company abuses.
It's a tricky, high-stakes political straddle by lawmakers who voted to create the controversial law, which Republicans intend to place at the center of their campaign to win control of the Senate and hold their House majority.
In one of the year's most closely watched races, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., recently aired a commercial that shows her in numerous public settings last fall sternly telling President Barack Obama to keep his promise to let people keep their current health plans if they want to — and then taking credit after he took steps to make that happen.
"I'm fixing it and that's what my bill does, and I've urged the president to fix it," Landrieu says of the healthcare law in the ad. It ends with a screen that reads: "The result: People now allowed to keep healthcare plans." The three-term lawmaker aired the ad after a televised attack by Americans for Prosperity, a group funded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch that has spent more than $25 million on similarly themed commercials in several races.
Hundreds of miles away, in Arizona, an outside group that backs Democrats stepped in after Americans for Prosperity targeted Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick. Referring to HealthCare.gov, which had a wretched debut last fall, a House Majority PAC ad said the Democratic lawmaker "blew the whistle on the disastrous healthcare website, calling it stunning ineptitude, and worked to fix it."
At the same time, Kirkpatrick "fought to hold insurance companies accountable, so they can't deny coverage for pre-existing conditions or drop it when they get sick," said the commercial, referring to popular elements of the law already in place.
The response comes as Democratic Party leaders look eagerly to outside groups to keep pace with the Koch brothers' early campaign barrage, while acknowledging they have been neither fast nor aggressive enough inside the Capitol in countering Republican attacks and demands for repeal.
"We have to stop being so defensive," said Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, recently tapped to lead an effort inside the Senate to respond publicly to GOP attacks.
Democrats also say public opinion points the way to a strong campaign rebuttal to Republicans. Geoff Garin, a pollster with ties to many lawmakers in the party, said that even in GOP-leaning districts, "there is a preference for a Democrat who wants to keep the good parts and fix the bad parts over a Republican who wants to repeal the whole thing."
It's a point Democrats emphasize.
In North Carolina, fast becoming ground zero of the "Obamacare" fight, a Senate Majority PAC ad says Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan "forced insurance companies to cover cancer and other pre-existing conditions." It adds that one of her Republican rivals, House Speaker Thom Tillis, "sides with insurance companies and would let insurance companies deny coverage."
Hagan has yet to air her own ads on the subject, although her campaign website makes the claims similar to the commercial by the Senate Majority PAC.
Americans for Prosperity has put more money into North Carolina than any other race, more than $5 million so far compared with about $1.5 million for the Democratic organization helping her. Both totals are certain to swell.
One recent anti-Hagan ad shows a woman saying she was shocked when she got a notice that her coverage was being canceled. "Kay Hagan told us if you like your insurance plan and your doctors, you could keep them. That just wasn't true."
Americans for Prosperity has also attacked in Arkansas, where Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor faces a tough race. The incumbent ran an ad late last year that did not mention the Affordable Care Act by name. It said he was working for "more doctor visits, free preventive care and lower prescription costs," references to elements of the legislation he voted for.
Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire has been attacked by a different group, Ending Spending, which mocked Obama's now-discredited statement that Americans could keep their healthcare if they liked it. "Next November, if you like your senator, you can keep her. If you don't, you know what to do," says the announcer.
Her official Senate website says she "voted in favor of the 2010 Affordable Care Act because she believes it is an important first step to making essential changes to our healthcare system."
"No longer can health insurance companies put lifetime dollar limits on health benefits or drop coverage if someone gets sick. Children under 19 can no longer be denied coverage if they have a pre-existing condition, and parents can keep their children on their insurance plans up to age 26," it says.
Republicans are trying to mitigate any damage from assertions along those lines.
More than three years after promising to "repeal and replace" Obamacare — and not once proposing an alternative — the House GOP leadership recently circulated a series of healthcare principles. Citing political reasons, party aides and strategists say they do not expect a bill to advance to the House floor this year. They note that would give Democrats a chance to turn the healthcare issue into a choice between two plans, rather than a referendum on an unpopular law with the president's name on it.
So far, at least, the deep-pocketed Americans for Prosperity is betting heavily that a straightforward message of repeal is a winning one, particularly when it is aimed at female voters.
Tim Phillips, president of organization, says that rather than targeting conservatives, who already oppose Obamacare, "we're trying to reach out to folks in the middle."
Republicans and Democrats alike say that means independent voters and loosely aligned Democrats. Many of the ads appear designed to appeal to women, whom Phillips said tend to be "the predominant healthcare decision makers" for their families and their aging parents as well as for themselves.
Democrats "know that this law is a huge problem for them," he said.
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