The odds remain fairly good that the Democrats can regain control of the Senate in November, especially if Democratic presidential nominee continues her strong showing against Republican businessman Donald Trump in the polls.
At least seven Republican-held seats are seen as being in play, including Illinois, New Hampshire, Indiana and Wisconsin, as well as the three crucial swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. Four other races -- including veteran Republican Sen. John McCain’s reelection effort in Arizona -- are deemed competitive by political experts.
But the political field is littered with potential landmines, and a sleeper issue that could explode in the Democrats’ faces is the Obamacare premium rate hikes.
Despite years of Republican vows to dismantle and replace the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare has received relatively little attention in the presidential and congressional races until now. Even as many major insurers, including Aetna, Humana and United Healthcare, have begun pulling out of many markets, threatening the long-term survival of the program, Obamacare is a secondary concern for many -- well behind the economy, terrorism and even the budget deficit.
Yet that could all change later this fall, shortly before the Nov. 8 election, when consumers in key battle ground states are confronted with huge increases in their premiums and out-of-pocket costs for the coming 2017 insurance season.
Early this week, three major insurers in Tennessee — Cigna Health Insurance, Humana and Blue Cross Blue Shield — were granted massive premium increases after the state’s insurance commissioner warned that the Obamacare markets were “very near collapse.” Those rate hikes ranged from 44 percent for Humana to 62 percent for BlueCross Blue Shield of Tennessee.
State insurance commissioners throughout the country are warning consumers that similar big rate hikes are in the offing for them. And as Politico reported on Friday, some of the steepest increases have been requested by health insurance companies in nine of the 11 states with competitive Senate races.
According to the report, a majority of those states have at least one insurer seeking to raise their rates for the coming year by more than 30 percent. In New Hampshire, for example, where Republican incumbent senator Kelly Ayotte is trying to fend off a strong challenge from Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, two of the five insurers are seeking rate increases in excess of 30 percent.
Wisconsin residents could face rate hikes of as much as 45 percent, according to federal health care data. Sen. Ron Johnson, who is considered to be among the most endangered Republicans, has denounced the rate hikes as part of a “massive consumer fraud” that is “harming real people,” according to Politico. “People are experiencing enormous premium increases,” said Johnson, who is being challenged by former Sen. Russ Feingold. “It’s not working.”
In Indiana, meanwhile, the giant insurance company Anthem has signaled efforts to raise Obamacare premiums by as much as 36 percent. Rep. Todd Young, the GOP candidate for a seat being vacated by retiring GOP Sen. Dan Coats, has already begun making the rate increase an issue against former Sen. Evan Bayh, the Democratic challenger. Young is attempting to turn their race into a referendum on Bayh’s vote in support of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
“This is sort of the first chance that voters have had to hold [Bayh] accountable for all the negative effects,” Young’s campaign manager told the news organization. “He’s never faced the voters on this issue.”
Jennifer Duffy, a senior analyst with the Cook Political Report who focuses on the Senate, agreed on Friday that Obamacare rate hikes could provide Republican candidates with added leverage this fall.
“Yes, increased premiums could play in Republicans' favor in some key Senate races, and especially in states where United Healthcare and/or Aetna are pulling out of exchanges next year,” she said in an email. “Voters get hit with higher costs AND they need to find a new plan. It just reminds voters that Democrats made them a lot of empty promises.
She noted that McCain, the Republicans’ 2008 presidential nominee, is already using the rate hike issue against his Democratic challenger, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who is on record as saying that voting for Affordable Care Act is her proudest moment in the House. There is at least one county in Arizona – rural Pinal County -- where no insurers will offer plans next year.
“Having said that, will it be enough?” Duffy said. “The closer the race, the more likely it will help” McCain.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato agrees that Obamacare premium sticker shock could make a difference in very tight elections. “Things that happen right before the election can have a disproportionate effect for an obvious reason,” he said in an email. “If something is on the voters' minds, and is bothering them, they are likely to include it in their voting calculation.”
“The Republican candidates for Senate are bound to use this to try to get some extra lift at the end,” he added. “Most of them need an issue or two to separate themselves from Trump so they can grab several percentage points more than Trump is going to get.”
Republicans currently hold a 54 to 44 seat majority in the Senate. If the Democrats manage to pick up five seats without losing any of their incumbents, then they will be back in power in January, and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York will be the next Senate majority leader. They could effectively take back the Senate by picking up only four seats, but that would be contingent on Clinton beating Trump and her vice president casting the decisive vote to break a 50-50 Democratic-Republican deadlock.
Early this summer, the National Republican Senatorial Committee first began raising the Obamacare issue by highlighting 40 percent proposed premium rate hikes in Florida, where Republican Sen. Marco Rubio is up for reelection. It's going to be a big issue on the trail, NRSC spokesman Greg Blair said at the time.
"Costs continue to rise and insurers continue to leave state exchanges and cancel plans because Obamacare has regulated them out of the market," he said in a statement. "Any Democrat who loyally stands by this unmitigated disaster will be held accountable by voters."
Democrats are more sanguine about their chances this fall, even amid substantial premium rate hikes. And while some agree that the Obamacare law and the exchanges need to be reformed or overhauled, they argue that Republican plans to repeal the health law would be disastrous for the 20 million people who have been insured through its coverage provisions.
While fairly substantial, double-digit rate hikes could be the norm this fall, the reality is that most consumers won’t feel the brunt of the increases, because they will qualify for federal tax subsidies.
The Department of Health and Human Services issued a report on Wednesday that shows that in the hypothetical event health care premiums rose by 25 percent across the board in the coming year, the vast majority of consumers – 73 percent – would be able to purchase coverage for less than $75 per month.