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GOP Sees Offensive Opening on Health Care for 2018

Republicans plan to tie all Democrats to “Medicare for all” proposals

Supporters waved signs Wednesday as Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced the Medicare for All Act of 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Supporters waved signs Wednesday as Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced the Medicare for All Act of 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

As more and more Democrats come out in favor of some form of “Medicare for all” legislation, Republican campaign strategists are salivating.

In much the same way the GOP has tried to tie all Democrats to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in attack ads, they’re planning to tie all Democratic incumbents and challengers to different proposals from Vermont independent Bernie Sanders in the Senate and Michigan Rep. John Conyers Jr. in the House, regardless of whether they’ve personally embraced those policies.

“I’m thrilled,” said Corry Bliss, executive director of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the leadership-backed super PAC that plans to spend $100 million to help Republicans keep their House majority in 2018.

“I love their new policy so much that I’m thinking about taking the $50 or so million I was planning on spending on attacking Nancy Pelosi and putting a small portion toward explaining how single-payer hurts the American people,” Bliss said Tuesday.

That strategy isn’t much different from the GOP strategy of the past seven years, when the party has gone after Democrats on the 2010 health care law. But after months of their own health care legislative failures, Republicans think they finally have an offensive opening on health care again.

“It’s first time we’ve been in that position in a long time,” said one GOP campaign strategist, who acknowledged that this year’s health care debate revived the 2010 law. 

Attacking all Democrats 

The National Republican Congressional Committee was especially vocal on Wednesday, with a digital ad and a slew of press releases trying to pin Sanders’ proposal on Democratic incumbents and challengers. 

“Studies reveal that single-payer would cost taxpayers a staggering $32 trillion over the next ten years,” the releases say, all pointing to the same study from the Urban Institute from May 2016.

“Sanders and Pelosi are leading their members down a path with nowhere to turn but left,” NRCC communications director Matt Gorman said in a statement. 

In reality, Pelosi has shied away from Medicare for all proposals, trying instead to keep her caucus’ focus on improving the 2010 health care law. Her reticence toward the issue is a fact Republicans sometimes highlight to underscore its unpopularity — as in, “This is such a bad idea, Nancy Pelosi doesn’t even support it.”

But when it comes to messaging against the proposals, Republicans are happy to include Pelosi — a perpetual boogeyman — to help tie the issue around the neck of all Democrats.

California Rep. Scott Peters, a member of the moderate New Democrat Coalition and chairman of the group’s PAC, brushed aside the threats of those kinds of attacks.

“That won’t be a very effective campaign technique. People understand where we are,” he said, walking down the House steps Wednesday afternoon. Peters, an NRCC target in 2018, doesn’t support the Conyers legislation.

But with a majority of House Democrats signing onto it, and many 2020 hopefuls embracing the Sanders plan in the Senate, Republicans see it as nationalized party issue they can apply down ballot to all candidates. 

“This is going to help frame the choice next year,” Bliss said. “It will be a huge issue in every single district that we spend in next year.“ 

One Republican admitted, though, it may be harder to message against a Democratic proposal that doesn’t stand a chance of becoming law anytime soon and doesn’t have a Democratic president behind it.

“I don’t think it will get to the same level as Obamacare did in the 2010 cycle,” the GOP strategist said. “You don’t have the same boogeyman in President Obama and Pelosi.”

Still, Republicans hope the issue will help them by pushing Democratic candidates to the left and sinking nominees in red districts or states won by President Donald Trump last fall.

In Wisconsin, where Trump eked out a win, Sen. Tammy Baldwin has come out in support of Sanders’ legislation. She’s the only senator up for re-election in a state the president won to have signed onto the Sanders’ proposal. 

Trump has called for “insurance for everybody,” but Republicans say it’d be very easy to message against a Medicare for all plan to his voters.

“Here’s a socialist idea where everyone gets the same thing,” the GOP strategist said. “That doesn’t play.” It doesn’t fit with what she called the “you deserve more” narrative that Trump pushed to working-class voters during the campaign. 

Keeping up the heat

Democrats aren’t backing away from their own offensive attacks on health care, trying to make the GOP-controlled Congress own their repeal-and-replace efforts.

That continued on Wednesday, with the introduction of the Senate Republicans’ latest effort at repealing the 2010 health care law. 

“The 2018 election will be a referendum on the toxic GOP health care plan that spikes costs and strips coverage,” said David Bergstein, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. 

And they’re skeptical that this week’s attention on the Medicare for all legislation will take away from what a GOP-controlled Congress has been able to do — or not do — on health care this year.

“To have that be their golden ticket out of the nightmare they face right now seems just insane,” one Democratic operative said.

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