TAMPA — Democratic candidates nationwide are worried about running for re-election next year in the wake of the problems with the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” and Republican attacks on Democratic incumbents in swing districts in Florida already are starting.
In response, the most vulnerable Democrats are taking steps to demonstrate their independence from the White House on the issue, while others believe the program’s problems will be sorted out by Election Day nearly a year from now.
At least one key Democratic candidate doesn’t have the luxury of that much time, however. Alex Sink, running to replace the late Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young in the Pinellas County congressional district, will run in a special election in March.
The outcome could be a prophecy for how much Democrats need to worry about ACA problems.
“People are looking at this as a very nationalized race, a bellwether for the country — one of the first congressional races to be held in the actual election year,” said University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus.
Sink, along with at least two Florida incumbent Democratic House members, Patrick Murphy of Jupiter and Joe Garcia of Miami, are acting independent of the Obama administration on the issue — Sink rhetorically and Murphy and Garcia by their votes.
Sink supported the act when it passed, she says on her Facebook page, but has always been lukewarm about it — as a candidate for governor in 2010 she didn’t take a position for or against it.
She now proclaims herself “so disappointed” by the program’s flawed rollout and she promises to “hold the administration accountable,” saying she “won’t be an apologist” for Obamacare.
“We need to be talking about how we are going to fix the problems in this law and make the transition work for businesses and families,” she said this week in an email statement.
Murphy and Garcia were among the 39 U.S. House members who voted last week in favor of a bill opposed by the administration to allow insurance companies to continue to sell policies that don’t meet the standards set by the Affordable Care Act — a reaction to reports about companies canceling individual health policies.
“The Affordable Care Act needs improvements,” said Murphy, a freshman whose district voted for Mitt Romney in the 2012 election and is considered the state’s most vulnerable Democrat. He has also backed delaying implementation of the mandates for individuals to buy health insurance and for businesses to offer it to employees.
One Democratic candidate who isn’t retreating from support for the law is former Gov. Charlie Crist, who was a vocal opponent at the time it passed.
Crist was then governor of Florida, running for the U.S. Senate. During the race, he switched from the Republican Party to independent.
“The Democrats unfortunately just rammed the thing through,” he said in an October 2010 debate. “Obamacare was off the charts, was wrong. It taxed too much ... and it’s not the way to go.”
Crist later became a Democrat and an ally of President Barack Obama, and he now backs the plan.
“I believe that the plan is a good plan,” he said on MSNBC’s “The Ed Show” last week. “We need health care. It‘s too expensive. And what the president was able to get through Congress I think is exactly what the American people want and deserve.
“We need to stay the course and be a little patient.”
Asked to explain his change of view, Crist said via email, “I did have real concerns about the Affordable Care Act, however, doing nothing on health care was not an option.
“Now that it is the law of the land, we have two choices: govern like Rick Scott, which is to stymie access to care, or work like many Republican and Democratic governors who are making the law work in their states.”
Republicans are launching attacks on all four of these Democrats — attacks the Democrats say in some cases are false, overlook the successes of the plan and exaggerate its problems.
Americans for Prosperity, the conservative interest group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, is spending $4 million on television ads against Democrats in six swing districts in five states, including Garcia and Murphy.
The congressional fundraising arm of the national Republican Party is running a paid web video attacking Sink.
Like the Americans for Prosperity ads, it uses a paid actress as a narrator, who pretends to be a grandmother living in the Pinellas district — “very common for political ads of this nature,” said GOP spokeswoman Katie Prill, but a practice Democrats have bashed.
The ad makes claims Sink called false.
“Thanks to Alex Sink’s support of ObamaCare, up to 500,000 children could be left without health coverage while costing some families thousands of dollars,” it says.
That refers to what’s been called the “family glitch” in the law that could make some families ineligible for the subsidies Obamacare provides low-income people to buy health insurance.
According to an analysis by the Pew Charitable Trust, the glitch doesn’t deprive anyone of coverage they already have or cost them more money but does deprive them of a benefit the law intended.
The glitch would require congressional action to fix, which appears unlikely considering Republican opposition to the overall law.
State Republicans, meanwhile, have blasted Crist over his changed position on the law, calling it an example of his flip-flopping.
The flap over the Obamacare rollout, meanwhile, appears in some ways to have rescued Republicans, who just a few weeks ago were suffering a severe public image debacle over the government shutdown crisis.
“It took a devastating issue for the Republicans and turned it upside down, into a devastating issue for the Democrats,” said retired University of South Florida political scientist Darryl Paulson, a Republican. “It shows how tenuous political fortunes can be. One moment you’re at the top, the next you’re on the bottom.”
But, Paulson added, Republicans still have to hang onto that advantage.
“And that will take more political skill,” he said, “than Republicans demonstrated during the shutdown.”