How Obamacare Clears the Field for a GOP Senate Win

How Obamacare Clears the Field for a GOP Senate Win

REUTERS/Jason Reed

Democrats have licked their chops in anticipation of the 2016 election when it comes to control of the US Senate. Under normal circumstances, a 24-10 advantage in a presidential cycle would all but guarantee Democrats victory in the Senate race.

Another two years of Obamacare price increases and insurer exits, along with less-than-formidable candidates in swing states, might have Democrats lose their best chance for control in a decade.

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Currently, Republicans control the upper chamber thanks to bountiful election successes in 2010 and 2014. The GOP picked up six seats in the first midterm election of Barack Obama’s presidency, largely on the anger over the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which helped fuel the rise of the Tea Party.

Four years later, Republicans gained nine seats, partly because of Obamacare and its embarrassing, incompetent rollout. What had been a 60/40 filibuster-proof majority for Democrats in Obama’s first two years has shifted to a 54/46 Republican majority and a major thorn in Obama’s side.

That success, however, leaves the GOP vulnerable in this election cycle, as they will defend 24 seats to just ten for Democrats. If Democrats can net five pickups, they can win back control of the Senate and counter the Republican-held House. If Hillary Clinton wins the White House, the GOP will lose any ability to prevent confirmation of progressive appointments to the Supreme Court.

Fortunately for Republicans, Democrats ended up nominating uninspiring candidates in several key races they expected to win handily. Marco Rubio’s last-minute decision to seek re-election in Florida pits his popularity against Rep. Patrick Murphy, whose résumé-padding still left him the better option over his reviled House colleague Alan Grayson.

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Former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland’s campaign has careened into a polling disaster against incumbent Rob Portman. Voter registration efforts appear to be boosting Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania against upstart Katie McGinty.

The problem goes deeper for Democrats than simply their roster, however. Insurers have filed for massive premium hikes in some of the key states where they had hoped to compete. Voters in Illinois, where incumbent Mark Kirk is vulnerable, will see premiums go up in 2017 by 45 percent starting on November 1, the beginning of open enrollment, one week before they go to the polls to vote. Democrats had hoped to pick off Chuck Grassley in Iowa, but a 30 percent increase in premiums will give even more momentum to the Senate Judiciary chair.

Premiums are only part of the problem. NPR reported this week that skyrocketing deductibles have become “the new normal” in health insurance – and not just for ACA exchanges. Deductibles have risen faster than the rate of inflation in employer-provided insurance to slow down increases in premiums, which have gone up 20 percent over the past five years.

Democrats promised that government control over this marketplace would “bend the cost curve downward” and result in an average reduction of $2500 in annual premiums for a family of four; instead, more of their disposable income and savings have gone to health insurance and out-of-pocket expenses.

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The dislocation of Obamacare consumers in many more states may have an even worse impact on Democrats. Voters in almost all key battleground states have at least one insurer pulling out of the exchanges, and in some cases more. Ohio will lose two insurers in every county, which will force consumers to find new policies at ever-higher prices.

Arizona, where John McCain looked vulnerable, will lose one insurer in every county, and one county won’t have any options in the Obamacare exchange. In four other key states for Senate control, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than half of all counties will lose at least one insurer: Florida, North Carolina, Colorado, and Wisconsin.

Don’t think these failings have escaped voters’ attention, either. A Morning Consult poll released this week shows far more people have experienced cost increases in every phase of health care than have seen reductions over the past year. Forty-three percent have had increases in premiums, while only 8 percent have saved money.

The poll found similar ratios for out of pocket costs for provider care (40/8), prescriptions (42/9), and deductibles (36/8). More than twice as many registered voters say their health insurance has gotten worse over the past year as do those who claim it got better, 29 percent to 11 percent.

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Republicans succeeded in capitalizing on a badly fumbled 2013 rollout of the ACA exchanges and converting it to a second successive landslide midterm election. At that time, Democrats offered a futile argument that the program had gotten back on track after a bad start. This time, with insurers bailing out of the program and voters bearing the brunt of sharply escalating costs, the GOP believes it can strike gold again.

“It feels like there’s a sleeping giant that’s about to awaken on the campaign trail,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean told The Hill’s Sarah Ferris. “It really does seem like an easy target, an easy layup for Republicans to score points.”

If so, it will be a last-second play that will determine the success of that layup. As bad as voters perceive Obamacare now, wait until November 1st, when many ACA exchange consumers will find out that they can’t keep their current plans or insurers, and many more have to work through massive price increases to meet their legal obligation for coverage. Even more voters will find out from employers how much the increased costs will eat into their 2017 income, forcing them backward instead of forward in buying power.

Republicans just might score the layup on continued GOP control of the Senate in those final seven days. And if they do, Democrats have no one to blame but themselves for their rush to slam-dunk a disastrously bad law in March 2010.