US Senate race heats up in NC; conservatives blast Hagan with TV ad

rchristensen@newsobserver.comOctober 29, 2013 

A new ad campaign, financed by Americans for Prosperity, ties incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan to the new health care law, which has gotten off to a shaky start.

  • About the ad

    The new Americans for Prosperity TV ad declares that Sen. Kay Hagan is “taking care of Washington insiders, not North Carolina families.” It says that Hagan supports “special treatment for Congress and their staff.”

    The special treatment charge has been questioned by various fact-checking organizations.

    Three-quarters of Americans receive their insurance through their employer, with employers paying part of their premium. The new federal health law doesn't deal with those workers.

    But the exception is members of Congress. Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, in an attempt to trip up Democrats, introduced an amendment that stated all members of Congress must be included as part of the health care law, buying their insurance on an exchange.

    In doing so, Congress stripped away the value of the insurance coverage they have been receiving. As a fix, the Office of Personnel Management, the agency in change of federal benefits, ruled that it would take the same money it spent on the government’s old health insurance and spend it on the health plans that members of Congress and their staff chose from the exchange. In other words, it would pay for part of the premium, as a private employer would. So members of Congress are being forced to drop their current insurance and enroll under the health care law. But their employer, the federal government, is paying part of their premium.

    The ad also accuses Hagan of supporting “waivers for friends of Obama.”

    House Speaker John Boehner has referred to “over 1,000 waivers and exemptions to political friends.” He and other Republicans are referring to the number of health insurance plans the Department of Health and Human Services allowed to temporarily set lower caps on the total amount of medical bills they would pay each subscriber. These include plans offered by 722 self-insured businesses, 417 groups of small employers joined in collective bargaining agreements, and 34 unions.

    The law, officially the Affordable Care Act, requires insurers to phase out by 2014 the annual limits they can pay an insured person. The rule was a problem for employers with “mini-med” plans that offer low premiums combined with low benefits and low annual caps. To keep workers from losing their coverage, HHS granted waivers to let hundreds of mini-med plans keep their lower caps in place until 2014. These are the exemptions to “friends of Obama” that are mentioned in the anti-Hagan ad.

    Staff writer Rob Christensen

— The North Carolina Senate race began in earnest Tuesday when a conservative group launched a $1.6 million TV ad campaign criticizing Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan for supporting the new health care law.

The ad campaign, financed by Americans for Prosperity, ties Hagan to the health care law, which has gotten off to a shaky start and which public opinion polls suggest is not popular.

“Kay Hagan just doesn't get it,” says the announcer. “Instead of listening to North Carolina, Hagan continues to push for Obamacare.”

The large, three-week ad buy comes at a time when Hagan’s four potential Republican opponents are not only badly trailing her in fundraising but will be focusing for the next seven months on trying to win the GOP nomination. The ad focuses heavily on women, a voting demographic where Republicans have trailed Democrats.

The ad campaign provides an opportunity for Republicans to change the chemistry of a race that has been going Hagan’s way. In recent months, it has been the Republicans who have been on the defensive – defending an unpopular shutdown of the government while polls suggest that both the GOP legislature and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s popularity have been sliding.

“This is a Senate seat that Republicans really do need to win to have any chance of getting back a majority in the Senate,” said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University. “North Carolina was for a while viewed as very competitive. I think there is a sense that it has slipped away a bit from the Republicans over the past few months.'”

“Here is kind of a lifeline, a real opportunity to change the momentum,” Taylor said. “It works particularly well in North Carolina because the Obamacare numbers are not that great here.”

That explains why in recent days, as news reports of problems with the rollout of the law continue, there has been a barrage of statements and news releases criticizing Hagan from various Republican Party organizations and GOP candidates.

Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, said the TV buy in North Carolina was the largest so far in the country by the group, which was founded by industrialists and major GOP donors Charles and David Koch. The group is also spending about $600,000 for a TV buy against Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, another targeted Democrat who is up for re-election next year.

Multipronged attack

At a news conference Tuesday at the Sheraton Raleigh Hotel, Phillips said “the goal is to hold Sen. Hagan accountable for her decisive vote to make Obamacare the law of the land. She has repeatedly worked and voted to uphold this law with all of its harmful impacts on North Carolinians from all walks of life. We are determined that this issue stay in the foreground.”

The group also plans to run a grass-roots campaign against Hagan that will include social media and knocking on doors.

In September, Americans for Prosperity began a $3million ad campaign in six states, including North Carolina, criticizing the new health care law, but it did not specifically target senators. Those ads mostly ran in states where Democratic senators were facing tough re-election fights next year.

The law, officially the Affordable Care Act, requires most Americans to buy insurance but provides federal subsidies to those whose incomes qualify. It also sets minimum standards for what benefits insurance policies must provide.

In a teleconference held before the new TV campaign was released, Hagan stood by her support for the health care law, saying it would provide health insurance to millions of people with preexisting conditions and ultimately help control health care costs. She said it will also help prevent people from being driven into bankruptcy by huge medical bills, or being unable to change jobs because they can’t obtain health insurance.

“I am not concerned with what outside special interests have to say, where outside money is coming into North Carolina,” Hagan said. “I am talking every day to people in North Carolina about the issues that are important to them, and I am going to continue focusing on my number one priority and their number one priority, which is jobs and the economy and getting this economy on the rebound.”

Hagan expresses frustration

But Hagan said she was “frustrated” with the health law’s website problems. She was one of 10 Democratic senators who last week signed a letter asking for a two-month extension for the sign-up and for a waiver to avoid new tax penalties. The administration on Monday agreed to a six-week extension for Americans to sign up for coverage next year and to avoid penalities under the law.

“My request was for two months,” Hagan said. “We will certainly have to see when the exchanges are completely operational. If we need a longer time, we need to look at it.”

Her request for an extension drew fire from her potential GOP candidates, who charged that she was trying to distance herself from the health care law.

“North Carolina deserves a leader that will actually stand up for its citizens and one that will refuse to play politics at the expense of its people that are suffering under crushing premium increases,” said GOP Senate candidate Mark Harris of Charlotte.

House Speaker Thom Tillis, another GOP Senate candidate, criticized her for “hypocritically begging for a delay.”

“She forces North Carolina to live under Obamacare while she approves special subsides for herself and members of Congress,” Tillis said in a statement.

Preston Elliott, Hagan’s campaign manager, said, “No one should be surprised that an outside, special interest group that supports her opponents and their fringe agenda is attempting to buy an election by running millions of dollars in ads that distort the truth and spread lies that have (been) rated false by nonpartisan fact checkers.”

Christensen: 919-829-4532; Twitter: @oldpolhack

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