Campaign kickoff: Can Republicans win on Obamacare alone?

Primary season has launched, and Republican candidates agree on their core message: Obamacare has to go. But they know Americans want to vote for something, not just against. Even the tea party is looking for ideas.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. John Barrasso (R) of Wyoming (l.), accompanied by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington last month about Obamacare.

The best campaign slogan, it is said, fits on a bumper sticker. So the Republicans should have it easy in the November midterms, at least on the message front.

Think “Obamacare” with a slash running through it. Or “Just say no to Obamacare.” Or, more subtly, “If you like your plan ...” – a hint at President Obama’s unkeepable promise, that people will be able to keep their health plans under his reform.

As conservatives prepare to gather near Washington, D.C., Thursday through Saturday for their annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, Republicans agree: The Affordable Care Act (ACA), and the unpopular president who is its champion, will form the heart of a potent GOP message that could hand the party control of the Senate and strengthen its majority in the House.

But is that enough? Probably not, GOP strategists say.

“Anti-Obamacare and anti-Obama leadership is the core message,” says Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “But people vote for things as well as against things, and the smartest politicians I’ve ever worked with all believe in the importance of having a positive agenda. That doesn’t mean they all have to have the same agenda – but they all need something to be for.”

Opposition to Obamacare will dominate Republican messaging going into the Nov. 4 midterms, agrees Saul Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party.

“Then you get into the localized message,” Mr. Anuzis says. For Michigan GOP politicians, he says, that means talking about jobs, competitiveness, low regulation, natural resources, and education reform.

The race for retiring Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin’s seat – once thought to favor the Democrats – has become highly competitive, with some polls showing former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land (R) ahead of Rep. Gary Peters (D). Representative Peters’s vote for Obamacare in 2010 could end up being an anchor around his neck.

Still, the economy remains the top issue for voters, both in Michigan and nationally – well ahead of health care, which has sunk in the ranking of voter concerns since last summer. The bumper sticker about Mr. Obama’s economy is easy, says Republican pollster David Winston: “Where are the jobs?”

“But the answer won’t be three words,” Mr. Winston says. “It will be a policy solution that people will have confidence will actually achieve the outcome.”

The midterm elections in 2010, when tea party energy swept Democrats out of power in the House, was about the president focusing on the wrong message – health care instead of jobs, Winston says. Now, five months after the disastrous launch of and the crumbling of Obama’s “like your plan” promise, the ACA is more than a notion. It has a track record.

“So to the Republican Party, the idea that the electorate wants to hear what we have to say is a remarkable position to be in,” Winston says.

Republicans in both the House and Senate have offered alternatives to the ACA, in some cases preserving the most popular features – such as the ACA’s ban on excluding customers with preexisting conditions. In the GOP’s official State of the Union response in January, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington summarized her party’s broad mantra on Obamacare: “We shouldn’t go back to the way things were, but this law is not working.”

On Wednesday, the Republican-controlled House cast its 50th vote to amend or repeal the ACA, and it passed a bill that would delay the individual mandate to purchase health insurance for one year. Alternatives to the ACA weren’t on the table.

That the party doesn’t have a single agreed-upon replacement for the ACA – or an overall agenda – is not a problem, says Mr. Ayres, the pollster.

“It’s inevitable that there will be no one unified message till we have a unifier,” he says, referring to the eventual Republican nominee for president in 2016. “We need good, creative ideas from all parts of the center-right Republican coalition.”

And that includes the tea party, Ayres makes clear. At a conference here last week marking the fifth anniversary of the tea party movement, Sen. Mike Lee (R) of Utah called for ideas for a comprehensive tea party agenda.

In his luncheon address, Senator Lee also called for realism: The agenda “has to be something that unifies conservative principles” in a way that starts with “the government that we have” rather than “the government that we wish we had.” Then he offered a broad outline: debt and deficit, regulations, domestic energy development, health care, and taxes.

In a way, his message was extraordinary. Five years ago, when the tea party burst onto the political scene, its agenda was clear: no more government bailouts, lower taxes, lower government spending, and no to the Obamacare legislation. Now, the movement has been largely absorbed into the Republican Party, and it's searching for an attractive, positive agenda, just as the party is.

“We’re always interested in good ideas no matter where they come from,” Ayres says.

Another source of Republican policy inspiration will come in a few weeks, when House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin puts out a budget proposal, effectively a response to the budget that Obama released on Tuesday. Neither document has a hope of becoming law. More realistically, they provide fodder for the fall campaigns.

This is the second of two articles on campaign issues of 2014. The first article, on Democrats, ran Tuesday with the headline: Campaign kickoff: Can Democrats win on economic populism?

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