WASHINGTON – Democrats are intensifying their attacks on President Donald Trump and his Republican allies over health care, hoping that an issue that helped lift the party during the 2018 midterms will prove even more resonant as the White House seeks to repeal the Affordable Care Act during a public health crisis.
Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, told an audience in the swing state of Pennsylvania this week that efforts to undermine the Obama-era health care law were “cruel” and “callous.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Trump “beyond stupid” for trying to roll back the law and introduced legislation that would expand the scope of the overhaul, essentially daring Republicans to vote against it.
The health care law has been a flashpoint in American politics since its enactment a decade ago. Once a cudgel Republicans used against Democrats, the tables have turned as the law — and its protection for preexisting conditions — has become more popular. Democrats believe that their advantage on the issue will only grow as the Trump administration renews its push to nullify the law even as coronavirus infections surge.
“Trying to take away health care in the middle of a pandemic is like throwing out the sandbags during a hurricane,” said Jesse Ferguson, a longtime Democratic strategist. “The pandemic has made clear for people how important it is to them that their neighbors have health care. It’s no longer a nicety that others have health care; it’s now a necessity.”
Still, the Trump administration filed a brief Thursday urging the Supreme Court to strike down the health care law in its entirety, in support of a lawsuit brought by Texas and other conservative states against it. The brief came on a day that the U.S. saw a record number of new coronavirus cases, with 37,077 reported Thursday.
If the lawsuit is successful, some 20 million Americans could lose their health coverage, and protections for people with preexisting health conditions also would be put at risk.
Trump has long expressed a desire to protect those with preexisting conditions but has not said what he would do instead. Even some Republicans say the party should avoid relitigating the issue.
Doug Heye, a longtime Republican strategist, said the Democratic attack ads essentially write themselves.
“For me, it’s really easy to see how Democrats will be able to out-message Republicans on this," he said. “You lay out the COVID statistics, and you blame President Trump and whoever the Republican is that you’re running against.”
David Flaherty, a Colorado political consultant not associated with GOP Sen. Cory Gardner’s reelection campaign, said the pandemic and the White House legal filings “without question” made the issue even more helpful for Democrats.
“It’s only good for Republicans from conservative districts” who want to avert a primary from a GOP rival, Flaherty said of the White House repeal effort. “It’s only good for the base; it’s not good for middle voters. It’s nothing but upside for Democrats.”
The Trump campaign, however, slammed Biden for what communications director Tim Murtaugh called the “Obamacare disaster" and hinted at the GOP's lines of attack on health care to come this fall.
“Joe Biden has no credibility on healthcare ever since the Obama/Biden administration’s Obamacare disaster kicked Americans off of their preferred plans. His support for a government-run ‘public option’ for healthcare, which endangers 180 million Americans’ private insurance and threatens more than 1,000 rural hospitals, is an admission that Obamacare was fatally flawed," he said.
After Republicans’ unsuccessful efforts to repeal and replace the law in 2017, Democrats turned GOP opposition against them — and their efforts bore fruit, both by helping the party pick up seats in the midterms and by seeming to improve public perception of the law.
In a May poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Americans were more likely to have a favorable than unfavorable opinion of the law, 51% to 41%. Opinions of the law have long been divided along party lines, but polls conducted by KFF over the past several years have consistently found that more Americans overall now favor than oppose the law.
And the 2018 midterms suggested repealing the law was not the rallying cry it once was for Republicans.
According to AP VoteCast, a survey of the electorate, only half of voters who supported Republican House candidates in the 2018 midterm elections said they thought the law should be repealed entirely, while about 4 in 10 preferred to repeal parts of the law. About 1 in 10 said it should be left as is or expanded. Among those who voted for Democratic candidates, about 6 in 10 wanted the law expanded, about 2 in 10 preferred it be left as is and about 2 in 10 wanted at least parts of the law repealed.
Democrats have been airing ads focused on health care for months, but Priorities USA Action, the major Democratic super PAC supporting Biden, seized on the Trump administration's latest move Thursday and launched a new ad in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan — three states key to Democrats’ hopes this fall — arguing that Trump is “failing on health care.”
One group focused specifically on the issue of health care, Protect Our Care, is also looking to make it a problem for Republicans in down-ballot races as well. Last year, it launched ads targeting Gardner and fellow Republican Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Martha McSally of Arizona and Joni Ernst of Iowa, focused on the GOP lawsuit.
And in March, it put $250,000 behind an ad attacking Republican Sen. Steve Daines of Montana on health care.
And Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., who leads House Democrats’ campaign arm, said the party considers health care the top issue in dozens of swing districts that will determine which party controls the chamber next year.
“We are literally battling the worst pandemic in 100 years. And Washington Republicans are dead set on being the biggest threat to public health,” she said.
She said the Democratic health care message would be, “Democrats are the party of health care. Republicans are the party of drinking bleach.”
Associated Press writer Emily Swanson in Washington contributed to this report.