Obamacare’s woes are back — just two weeks before Election Day.
The government said Monday that premiums for Obamacare’s benchmark plan are set to rise an average of 22% next year. That sticker shock is emerging as a potent issue in the final stretch of the 2016 campaign, giving GOP nominee Donald Trump and Republicans running for Congress a unifying rallying cry.
“It’s blowing up all over the country,” Trump told reporters Tuesday at his golf resort in Doral, Florida, vowing to repeal and replace Obamacare with something less expensive.
The GOP nominee’s swift move to exploit the return of the Affordable Care Act was a sign he believes he can use it to throw his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, onto the defensive. Clinton has positioned herself squarely as the heir to President Barack Obama and the protector of his legacy. A fresh spat over health care could complicate Clinton’s hopes to ride her commanding lead in the polls to a comprehensive victory on November 8.
The Clinton campaign argued Tuesday that the Republican repeal and replace position is simply not viable.
“There’s a clear choice in this election: either we’re going to help American families and tackle health care cost issues, or we’re going to throw 20 million people off their coverage and let the insurance companies write the rules again,” campaign spokeswoman Julie Wood said in a statement. “Hillary Clinton wants to build on the progress we’ve made and fix what’s broken, while Donald Trump would rip up the ACA, reverse the progress we have made and start this fight all over again.”
There was no sign, however, that Clinton will go out of her way to talk about Obamacare, suggesting she will do everything she can to avoid being knocked off her primary message that Trump is simply unfit to be President.
The Obamacare hikes could be offset in many cases by subsidies. Still, Republicans have sought to make the law a campaign issue for weeks, seizing on former President Bill Clinton’s remarks earlier this month that rising health premiums he said were caused by Obamacare were the “craziest thing in the world.”
Clinton later walked back the remarks and backed aspects of Obamacare, but the GOP used the comment to highlight problems with the law and to try to drive a wedge between Hillary Clinton and Obama’s supporters.
Boost for Senate candidates
Obamacare’s rising premiums could also provide a boost for Republican Senate candidates, fighting a rear guard action against a rising Democratic tide and an onslaught by Clinton and Obama in their tough battle to retain the chamber.
Like Trump, Republican operatives swung into action quickly to exploit the premium hikes.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee blasted out a video of Katie McGinty, a Pennsylvania Democrat who is locked in a tight race with incumbent Republican Pat Toomey, in which she said that Democrats should be “proud of” Obamacare.
“Is Shady Katie still proud of Obamacare?” the NRSC released asked.
Iowa Republican Party chairman Jeff Kaufmann said in a statement that Democrat Patty Judge, who is seeking to unseat GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley, “cheers and hollers for the Obamacare disaster.”
That is a message that is likely to be adopted in other Senate that could decide control of the chamber, including Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s uphill re-election battle in New Hampshire and Sen. Richard Burr’s tough fight in North Carolina.
Higher premium hikes in states like Florida — a vital battleground where Clinton and Trump are campaigning on Tuesday — and in Colorado could also shape the political narrative in the run-up to election day.
And Clinton’s push into Arizona, a red state that Democrats believe they can pluck from Trump on Election Day, is now facing a new obstacle following news that Obamacare premiums could rise 116%.
“Isn’t it amazing that you had Barack Obama a week ago literally celebrating the launch of Obamacare, and then we find out from his own HHS in the last 24 hours that premiums are going to go up 25% across the board,” GOP vice presidential nominee Mike Pence said on the Hugh Hewitt radio show on Tuesday.
Pence vowed to repeal Obamacare “lock, stock and barrel” and replace it with healthcare reform that’s grounded in “free market principles and more consumer choice and health savings accounts.”
There is no guarantee Obamacare’s new problems will necessarily be a slam dunk for Republicans. A CNN/ORC poll published Monday showed that health care was only the fifth most important issue motivating voters this year, behind other concerns including the economy, immigration, foreign policy and terrorism.
Another factor that could diminish the impact of the latest Obamacare travails is the unconventional nature of this election, which at this late stage seems to be turning far more on Trump’s personality and temperament than a detailed discussion of policy issues.
Whether there is a critical mass among the roughly 20 million people who now have access to health care under Obamacare that could change close, swing state races is also in question, and will only be solved on November 8.
And it is unclear whether voters motivated by Obamacare will blame the Democrats for rising prices or remain largely satisfied with the law.
Still, Clinton is likely to have to expand on her current position that there are problems with Obamacare — like any new law — that could be fixed with help from Congress. So far, however, GOP control of Capitol Hill has resulted only in multiple futile votes to repeal Obamacare rather than to make it work.
Any Republican advantage could also be muted by Trump’s lack of specifics on the law. The billionaire’s rapidly organized event in Doral on Tuesday did as much to expose his campaign’s own fogginess on the issue as it did to damage Clinton.
Surrounded by workers from his resort, Trump started off by saying that “all of my employees are having a tremendous problem with Obamacare.”
But later, in response to a question from a reporter, he said that he provides health insurance to his employees and most of them were not on Obamacare — undercutting the strength of his own argument.
Some veteran Democrats are downplaying the damage that the new debate over health care could inflict on the Clinton campaign.
Former White House press secretary Jay Carney, who spent long hours defending Obamacare from the briefing room, admitted the law was not as popular as the president would like it to be. But he saidvoters would give Clinton credit for trying to repair it.
“Is it something …. that’s going to change the election? No, it’s not,” Carney said on CNN’s “New Day” on Tuesday. “Remember, the opportunity Republicans had to use Obamacare against the Democrats and win the White House was in 2012. Mitt Romney, a far more credible candidate for president of the United States from the Republican Party, you know, beat us hard over the head with Obamacare.”
“And guess what,” Carney continued. “The American people re-elected President Obama.”