Nov 1 (Reuters) - From suburbs to conservative rural areas, Democrats seeking a majority in at least one house of the U.S. Congress in next week’s elections are spending the last days of the campaign on one message: They will protect Americans’ healthcare coverage.
The strategy is clear in campaigns like that of Democrat Andy Kim, who has spent the past 16 months trying to unseat Republican U.S. congressman Tom MacArthur of southern New Jersey for his role in passing a House of Representatives bill that would have repealed the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
That effort failed in the Senate by a single vote, following dozens of Republican votes over the years to repeal former Democratic President Barack Obama’s signature domestic law, popularly known as Obamacare. Democrats warn that if Republicans keep control of Congress in Tuesday’s elections, people could lose coverage for pre-existing health conditions and other protections afforded by the law.
MacArthur is one of 67 vulnerable Republican incumbents who have voted to repeal Obamacare. If they lose their seats, it will be in part because of voters like Laurel Smith, who has a son with a rare genetic disorder. She voted for MacArthur in both 2014 and 2016 before he authored a last-minute amendment that resuscitated the repeal effort in the House in May 2017.
“I voted for Tom MacArthur because I truly believed he was the best person for the job,” said Smith, 58, from Medford, New Jersey. “I’ve never been so disappointed in my life.”
Democrats’ focus on healthcare extends beyond House races to key gubernatorial and Senate races, including contests in deeply conservative states where Republican President Donald Trump won by double-digit margins in 2016.
The strategy is a sharp shift for Democrats, who were wary of defending Obamacare in previous election cycles when the law was unpopular with many voters.
Democrats are favored to flip the 23 seats they need to secure a majority in the House, although they are considered a long shot to pick up the two seats necessary to take over the Senate.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted Oct. 1 through Oct. 29 found healthcare was the top issue on the minds of Democratic and independent voters heading into the elections, and third in priority among Republicans, behind immigration and the economy. (polling.reuters.com/#!response/TR112/type/week/dates/201 81001-20181030/collapsed/true)
In general, Democratic messaging on healthcare has avoided explicit mention of Obamacare in favor of emphasizing one of its most popular benefits: prohibiting insurers from charging more or denying coverage to people because of pre-existing conditions.
Eight out of 10 likely voters, regardless of party, want to keep those protections, according to the Reuters/Ipsos poll.
Vulnerable Democratic senators in states won by Trump are also focusing on the issue. Among them is U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who has criticized her Republican challenger, state Attorney General Josh Hawley, for joining a lawsuit filed by Republican attorneys general seeking to overturn the Affordable Care Act, or ACA.
Trump, who vowed throughout his campaign to repeal Obamacare and fumed when the effort failed, is due in Missouri on Thursday, the second stop on his six-day campaign tour to battleground states.
On Friday, he will travel to West Virginia, which he won by more than 40 points in 2016. The state’s Democratic senator, Joe Manchin, has attacked his opponent, Republican state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, for participating in the same lawsuit joined by Hawley.
Republicans have argued that they are also committed to maintaining those protections, drawing accusations of hypocrisy from Democrats and healthcare experts who say the repeal of the ACA would have sent premiums skyrocketing for certain people with pre-existing conditions.
Last week, Trump tweeted that Republicans would “totally protect people with Pre-Existing Conditions, Democrats will not!”
Democrats are hoping healthcare can help them draw in young voters like Bianey Diaz, a student at LaGrange College in Georgia, who attended a recent rally by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who will be joined at campaign events on Thursday by Oprah Winfrey.
“I’m really super passionate about pre-existing conditions – that’s the big thing with personal experience in my own family and friends, loved ones,” Diaz said.
The race between MacArthur and Kim, a former national security adviser in the Obama administration, is a virtual tie, according to recent polls. In 2016, MacArthur won re-election by 20 points, while Trump carried the district by 6 points.
The congressman said his amendment would have preserved coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, noting language in the legislation to that effect.
“While Democrat attack ads are designed to scare voters, I am focused on bringing healthcare costs down and I led the effort to ensure that those with pre-existing conditions were protected,” MacArthur said in a statement.
Kim’s campaign said the bill would have “gutted” those protections.
“Congressman MacArthur has spent this entire campaign trying to deceive New Jersey families about his MacArthur Amendment,” said Kim spokesman Forrest Rilling.
Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York, Additional reporting by Maria Caspani in Atlanta, David Morgan in Pittsburgh and Jilian Mincer in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney