Despite Cory Gardner’s multiple votes to repeal the ACA, he has largely avoided talking about the measure during the 2020 campaign
By Markian Hawryluk, Kaiser Health News
In the 2014 elections, Republicans rode a wave of anti-Affordable Care Act sentiment to pick up nine Senate seats, the largest gain for either party since 1980.
Newly elected Republicans such as Cory Gardner in Colorado and Steve Daines in Montana had hammered their Democratic opponents over the health care law during the campaign and promised to repeal it.
Six years later, those senators are up for reelection. Not only is the law still around, but it’s gaining in popularity. What was once a winning strategy has become a political liability.
Public sentiment about the ACA, also known as Obamacare, has shifted considerably during the Trump administration after Republicans tried but failed to repeal it. Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis, which has led to the loss of jobs and health insurance for millions of people, health care again looks poised to be a key issue for voters this election.
With competitive races in Colorado, Montana, Arizona, North Carolina and Iowa pitting Republican incumbents who voted to repeal the ACA against Democratic challengers promising to protect it, attitudes surrounding the health law could help determine control of the Senate. Republicans hold a slim three-vote majority in the Senate but are defending 23 seats in the Nov. 3 election. Only one Democratic Senate seat — in Alabama, where incumbent Doug Jones is up against former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville — is considered in play for Republicans.
“The fall election will significantly revolve around people’s belief about what [candidates] will do for their health coverage,” said Dr. Daniel Derksen, a professor of public health at the University of Arizona.
The Affordable Care Act has been a wedge issue since it was signed into law in 2010. Because it then took four years to enact, its opponents talked for years about how bad the not-yet-created marketplace for insurance would be, said Joe Hanel, spokesperson for the Colorado Health Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on health policy analysis. And they continued to attack the law as it took full effect in 2014.
Gardner, for example, ran numerous campaign ads that year criticizing the ACA and, in particular, President Barack Obama’s assertion that “if you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care plan.”
But now, Hanel said, the ACA’s policies have become much more popular in Colorado as the costs of health exchange plans have dropped. Thus, political messaging has changed, too.
“This time it’s the opposite,” Hanel said. “The people bringing up the Affordable Care Act are the Democrats.”
Despite Gardner’s multiple votes to repeal the ACA, he has largely avoided talking about the measure during the 2020 campaign. He even removed his pro-repeal position from his campaign website.
Democratic attack ads in July blasted Gardner for repeatedly dodging questions in an interview with Colorado Public Radio about his stance on a lawsuit challenging the ACA.
His opponent, Democrat John Hickenlooper, fully embraced the law when he was Colorado governor, using the measure to expand Medicaid eligibility to more low-income people and to create a state health insurance exchange. Now, he’s campaigning on that record, with promises to expand health care access even further.