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Health Care Major US Election Issue

President Barack Obama’s controversial health care law will be at the center of the political debate during this year’s U.S. congressional midterm election campaign.

Despite early problems with implementation of the law, the White House recently announced more than seven million people have signed up for health insurance and that has some Democrats breathing a bit easier about their re-election hopes in November.

At a recent Obamacare sign-up event in Los Angeles, volunteer Elliot Petty was pleased with the turnout. “You know it’s really going great today. People are really hungry for health care.”

The White House has been quick to seize on the good news about the health care law, well aware that nervous Democrats are anxious to find the political silver lining in what has been a difficult roll out period for the complex and divisive law.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found the country split on the health care law, 49 percent in favor and 48 percent opposed. That poll result should encourage Democrats since past readings have put support for the law closer to 40 percent in many surveys.

President Obama was quick to seize on the good news about the sign up figures at a White House rally with supporters of the law. “I will always work with anyone who is willing to make this law work even better. But the debate over repealing this law is over. The Affordable Care Act is here to stay!”

Election Year Battle

Republicans say the debate is not over and they have not stopped trying to either repeal the law outright or force some serious changes. They also see the ongoing debate over the law as a major factor in their favor come the November elections.

“I can give you hundreds of letters from my constituents who have been harmed by this law,” says House Speaker John Boehner.

Despite the fact that the Affordable Care Act was signed into law in 2010, it remains a constant topic of debate in both the House and Senate. During recent Senate floor speeches, Republican John Thune of South Dakota charged the health care law “continues to wreak havoc on job creation”, while Democrat Richard Durbin accused Republicans of only wanting to kill the law, not improve it. “Not a single Republican has been willing to sit down and work on bipartisan compromises and changes. Not one.”

Both parties are continually trying to assess the political impact of the health care debate on the November elections. Republicans continue to believe Obamacare will work to their benefit because it will motivate their conservative base to get out and vote. Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Center says there is some evidence to support that theory.

“Well it is an animating factor for the Republican base. With turnout being so important this is an issue that I think does really get people upset and excited, especially on the Republican side.”

But Doherty also notes that after years of debate there has been no sea-change in terms of public support for or opposition to the law, and that could limit the impact of the issue in the November balloting. “The overall approval numbers have remained remarkably stable over the four years of the health care law. It has not moved a lot. I doubt if Republicans are going to pay the price for making this an issue, but I think it will mainly work to energize their own base.”

The Democrat’s Challenge

President Obama and his Democratic Party allies in Congress may have a tougher task in convincing the public the health care law has overcome its early problems and will benefit the country. A number of Democrats worried about their re-election bids in the House and Senate are putting some distance between themselves and the law, even as the White House and Democratic National Committee highlight the recent surge in signups.

Trying to convince the public the Affordable Care Act is a net positive only adds to the Democrat’s challenges for 2014. The party controlling the White House usually loses seats in midterm elections during a president’s second term, says analyst John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“I think the two biggest factors underlying a midterm election are; how is the economy doing, and how is the president in the White House doing? And ultimately midterm elections don’t go very well for the president’s party, they tend to go against it. And if the economy is worse, it’s even worse. And if the president’s unpopular, it’s even worse.”

The president’s popularity has hovered near some record lows in recent months, often in the low 40’s in terms of public approval. That has made some Democrats nervous about their prospects in November as well and many of them are hoping for some sort of political rebound for the president in the months ahead.

Most of the focus in this year’s midterm battle will be on the Senate, where Republicans appear to have an excellent chance to gain the six seats necessary for them to claim a majority. Several vulnerable incumbent Senate Democrats are running in states that supported Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, and a recent Supreme Court decision further broadening the reach of wealthy campaign donors should also help Republican candidates this year.

Fortier predicts it could be late on election night on November 4th before we know which party controls the Senate, but he says it is probable that Republicans will make gains in both the House and Senate. “I think we will be wondering whether they get to 50 seats or 51 seats, but there is a reasonable chance for Republicans to eke out a majority in the Senate as well as holding their majority in the House.”
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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.