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Most Democrats avoid healthcare on campaign trail

By Aaron Blake

If House Democrats sustain major losses on Nov. 2, the health care law passed earlier this year is likely to be a big reason.

The proof is in the pudding: while Republicans have been hammering away at Democratic incumbents who voted for the bill and even open seat candidates who expressed support for the legislation, Democrats have run almost no ads playing up the bill.

After the bill was signed, Democratic leaders stressed that some of the finer points of the bill -- coverage for pre-existing conditions, allowing young people to stay on their parents' insurance longer, and removing lifetime limits on coverage -- polled well. They made the case that these were proposals that their party could run and win on even if the broader bill was unpopular.

But few vulnerable Democrats have followed that strategic course.

So far we've seen ads from Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Rep. Scott Murphy (D-N.Y.) going on the offensive over the issue. Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) mentions the pre-existing conditions aspect of the law briefly in one of her ads, while Reps. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) and Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Pa.) have defended themselves from attacks.

Beyond them, it's basically been radio -- and television -- silence. Even as Republicans have attacked Democrats on the bill, Democrats haven't seen fit to fight back -- preferring to change the subject.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said Democrats are still talking about the issue, but he conceded that its mostly just safe incumbents.

"The large majority around the country do talk about it; it's just that they don't get as much attention because they're in congressional races that are not necessarily as contested," Van Hollen said.

National polling explains why most Democrats in competitive districts are loathe to take about health care.

More Americans still oppose the health care bill than support it, and those who oppose it do so with a passion that could drive turnout for Republican candidates. Nearly half (48 percent) of Americans opposed the bill in the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll two weeks ago, but about three-fourths of those who opposed it said they were "strongly opposed."

That passion is playing out in internal polling too. Check out this word cloud culled from 65 districts where the National Republican Congressional Committee has conducted polling through its independent expenditure unit.

The NRCC asked the following open-ended question: "What would give you the biggest hesitation in voting to" elect a Democratic candidate? The answers were recorded verbatim, and the more often a word was used, the bigger it appears in the graphic.


The graphic shows that "healthcare" came in second only to "Democrat" and, perhaps more remarkably, was used even more than "President Obama," "Nancy Pelosi" or "liberal."

Republicans say that's evidence of how well the issue plays for them, and they point out that Feingold, Titus, Murphy and Pomeroy are among the most endangered Democrats in the country.

But Democrats aren't willing to concede that the issue is an electoral loser. They say instead that it's basically gotten lost in the shuffle.

"The question is: When you have to make a choice as to what to do with your 30 seconds of TV, what's the best use of that?" Van Hollen said.

Democratic pollster Fred Yang said the Democrats' focus on playing offense has taken the focus off defending their votes.

"We're in the process of trying to define our Republican opponents and frame this as a choice for voters," Yang said. "So it's very hard under that formulation to have much, if any, positive messaging on health care."

So where are health care votes making the biggest difference?

Republicans say the issue has really worked for them against members like Florida Reps. Allen Boyd (D) and Suzanne Kosmas (D), who both voted "no" on the first version of the bill in 2009 before switching their votes to "yes" in March. They are now looking like underdogs despite having massive financial advantages over their opponents.

Kosmas is one of a handful of incumbents the DCCC has stopped advertising for because they are in such dire straights. The others are Reps. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Pa.) and Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio), who both voted for the health care bill. Reps. Mary Jo Kilroy (D-Ohio) and Debbie Halvorson (D-Ill.) also voted for the bill and are looking like big underdogs as well.

Some potentially vulnerable Democrats who voted against the bill appear to be bucking the trend, however.

Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) is in good position in a district that went for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by double digits in the 2008 presidential election, while Reps. John Barrow (D-Ga.), Dan Boren (D-Okla.), Tim Holden (D-Pa.), Rick Boucher (D-Va.), Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) and Frank Kratovil (D-Md.) all appear to have weathered major political damage caused by the vote.

One of the central questions of this election is whether -- and how many Democratic incumbents will wake up Nov. 3 and blame their losses on one fateful vote last March.

By Aaron Blake  | October 22, 2010; 2:45 PM ET
Categories:  Health Care, House  
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Next: Afternoon Fix: Biden says outside groups may jeopardize Dems' House majority; Internal Dem Senate polls show gains in West Virginia and Louisiana

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