GOP Fires a Warning Shot in Kentucky in the War Against Obamacare
Policy + Politics

GOP Fires a Warning Shot in Kentucky in the War Against Obamacare

REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

The Republican victories in Kentucky’s gubernatorial race and Virginia’s state legislative elections on Tuesday provided a jarring wakeup call to Democrats that they could be facing a tough slog in the 2016 campaign.

In Kentucky, Republican Matt Bevin, a wealthy Louisville businessman and Tea Party favorite who promoted himself as a Donald Trump-like outsider, defeated Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway for the governorship, with 52 percent of the overall vote. In Virginia, Republicans retained control of their narrow majority in the state Senate despite an all-out effort by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe to flip control and salvage his progressive agenda.

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Party officials and political analysts are pouring over the results of these key off-year elections for clues to Southern voting trends in the run-up to the 2016 presidential, congressional and gubernatorial elections. The 48-year-old Bevin’s stunning victory could mark the start of a new era in Kentucky, where Democratic governors have ruled for all but four of the past 44 years. And Virginia Republicans demonstrated remarkable staying power in state and local races across the board.

One important preliminary finding is that the Kentucky and Virginia election results may be a harbinger for Republican efforts to dismantle Obamacare and block a further extension of Medicaid health care benefits to many of the nation’s poorest individuals and families.

Under Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, Kentucky has been one of the major success stories of the Affordable Care Act. The state both created and operated its own health insurance exchange and took advantage of the law to expand Medicaid coverage to more than 400,000 low-income residents. But Obamacare was a highly contentious issue in this year’s gubernatorial campaign and Bevin at one point vowed to abolish the state-run market, Kynect, and shift responsibility back to the federal government while rescinding Beshear’s Medicaid expansion order.

In the face of strong criticism from Democrats and even some prominent Republicans, Bevin tempered his remarks in the closing weeks of the campaign and suggested that he would simply stop new enrollments for Medicaid while allowing those currently in the program to retain their coverage. But once he takes control of the state, Bevin could have another change of heart and turn his sights on reducing the Obamacare program.

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One likely move is for the governor-elect to seek a federal waiver – not unlike those obtained by other states including Pennsylvania and Indiana -- to experiment with more restrictive versions of the Medicaid expansion program. One option involves raising the income limits to qualify for the benefits.

However, Robert Stivers, president of the Republican-controlled state Senate, has said that the Kentucky General Assembly will decide what happens to the Medicaid expansion, according to The Courier-Journal.

The outcome in Virginia is equally troubling for Democrats, both now and for 2016. All 140 seats in the legislature were up for grabs in the off-year election. While Republicans greatly outnumbered Democrats in the state House, the GOP held a slim 21-19 advantage in the state Senate. McAuliffe, a longtime confidant of presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, campaigned hard to pick up at least one seat so that he could tap his Democratic lieutenant governor to be a reliable tie-breaker.

Had the chamber flipped, the new Democratic majority no doubt would have revived McAuliffe’s stalled effort to expand Medicaid in the commonwealth, one of his top legislative priorities, which state house Republicans have staunchly resisted. Instead, Republican held onto all of their seats. And due to Virginia laws limiting any governor to a single, four-year term, it seems McAuliffe’s goal of forging a lasting legacy by bringing in more federal money for healthcare has gone up in smoke.

Currently, 30 states and the District of Columbia have approved Medicaid expansion, while the remaining 20 states have blocked it or have it under consideration. Nine of those 20 states are in the South, while the remainder are largely in the Midwest and Southwest. A few of those states, including South Carolina, Florida and Virginia, are likely to be crucial battleground states in the 2016 presidential election.

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The Virginia GOP’s ability to withstand a well-financed campaign by Democrats could also spell trouble for a national Democratic Party that hopes to once again win the purple state in 2016.

Tuesday’s results could complicate plans by Clinton and others to tout their support of Obamacare and Medicaid expansion as Republicans turn their opposition into an advantage.