NC Democrats: Too early to tell health care’s election impact

rschoof@mcclatchydc.comNovember 30, 2013 

Democratic leaders in counties across the state say they don’t think problems with the health care law will hurt their party or Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan’s re-election efforts next year – even as they work on a post-holiday game plan to change the conversation.

Hagan has slipped in the polls the past several weeks as Republicans have linked her to the Affordable Care Act through ad campaigns.

But Democrats argue that it’s too early to know what the public will think of the health care changes in the months ahead.

They also have to wait to see whether the health insurance shopping site,, starts working properly. The White House set Saturday as its own deadline for making it work for most people.

“Of course, we’re hopeful that you start to see very tangible benefits and you have more people that are able to step forward and say, ‘Hey, this is great; this is doing wonderful things for me’ between now and next November,” said Dan Blue III, the Wake County Democratic chairman. “But it’s still early.”

He predicted that, overall, health care would be a positive for Democrats.

“There will be some, as with any change, that are going to be adversely impacted by it,” Blue said. “But by and large, there are extremely large portions of North Carolina that are going to see an improvement in their health care.”

Some Democrats also think North Carolina voters will look at health insurance in a broader way – taking into account not just votes in Washington, but in the state legislature as well.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican leaders in the General Assembly decided not to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. They also decided not to set up a state-run health insurance exchange, sending North Carolina residents to the federal site to choose health insurance options. Residents of states with their own health insurance exchanges haven’t encountered the same kinds of problems with their state websites as have plagued the federal site.

More explanation needed

Democrats and nonpartisan groups have been holding meetings to explain the health care law and talk up its benefits. But Democrats say more education is needed, especially in the state’s more rural counties, where the economy has been slower to improve and people are still struggling.

“Let’s get some education out there and help folks understand what is the ACA and what can it do for you and how can you get signed on and where do you go to get help and all that, which should have been done months ago,” said Susan Campbell, who leads Democrats in Forsyth County. Like Wake, Forsyth voters favored both Barack Obama and Republican McCrory in 2012.

Local Democrats haven’t done a lot to get their message out yet, but Campbell said it will be along these lines: “Why wouldn’t we want health care for everyone? Isn’t that a good thing? Yes, it’s complicated, and yes, it’s having problems launching. We hate that, and I’m ever hopeful it will start working better soon.”

Campbell said she is personally better off. She has a pre-existing condition, and with the law, her insurance costs went down.

In solidly Democratic Orange County, chairman Matthew Hughes said he talks to voters about the people he knows who have medical conditions that made it difficult to get insurance before the law went into effect.

“It’s not just because Orange County is a super-blue county. But I think a lot of people recognize this is an important program and it’s going to help them,” Hughes said.

But is the health care law hurting Hagan there now?

“I can’t speak specifically on that, but the people I speak to still hold the Affordable Care Act in high regard,” he said. And they aren’t surprised there were early technical problems, he added.

Misled the public?

State Republicans said the county Democrats are wrong.

“If Democrats want the 2014 election to be a referendum on Obamacare, they aren’t going to like the results next November. Obamacare has been a complete disaster, and it’s the reason why the White House and vulnerable incumbents like Kay Hagan have been trying to conveniently delay key provisions until after the 2014 election. The worst of Obamacare is still yet to come,” said state Republican spokesman Daniel Keylin.

Keylin and national Republicans seeking to defeat Hagan say the Greensboro Democrat misled the public when she said that people would be able to keep insurance plans they liked. That was the case for the vast majority of people, but not all. Some saw their policies canceled because they did not comply with the new law.

Hagan voted for the law and stands by it. She argues that it will help because it allows people with pre-existing conditions to sign up for health insurance and ends lifetime caps on coverage. She proposed letting people keep existing plans, something Obama later agreed to do.

Hagan also hasn’t edged away from the White House. Vice President Joe Biden attended a fundraiser for her recently in Chapel Hill. At another recent event in Raleigh, Hagan said she looked forward to Obama visiting the state to campaign for her as well.

But her numbers are down.

Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh-based, Democrat-leaning firm, reported earlier this month that Hagan had lost her lead over potential Republican challengers and that 49 percent disapproved of her, up from 39 percent in September.

American for Prosperity, a tea-party-allied advocacy group funded by the conservative brothers David and Charles Koch of Koch Industries, spent $1.7 million on a TV ad campaign highlighting Hagan’s support for the health care law. “Who gets stuck with the bill? Families and small businesses,” it said. This month, AFP put out another ad, at $1.5 million, against the health care law and Hagan.

Door-to-door campaign

Blue said that in Wake and other counties, grass-roots Democrats don’t have the money to go head-to-head with negative advertising. That leaves them going door to door instead. The ads are the job of the big Democratic PACs.

William Hemphill, Democratic chairman in Bladen County, said people there were worried about how to survive, not about the health care law.

“We’ve got people who make less than $2,000 a month,” said Hemphill, who moved to the county, where his wife grew up, after he retired from the Postal Service in Baltimore.

The top issue in Bladen County, Hemphill said, is jobs.

Many people there aren’t signing up for health insurance because they don’t understand the system, he said. “And the other ones figure, ‘Insurance? I can’t even pay my bills.’”

Hemphill said there haven’t been meetings to explain the new insurance system in his area. He hoped that state Democrats would organize some.

Other issues in 2014

Some of the county-level Democrats said that if House Speaker Thom Tillis wins the Republican primary and becomes Hagan’s opponent, other issues will come up.

“The Affordable Care Act and the disinformation being disseminated about it is huge,” said Jan Nichols, Democratic chairwoman in Chatham County. But issues likely to emerge in the race are state school finance and voter identification laws, she said.

Nichols said it’s too early to say whether the negative ads on the Affordable Care Act would hurt Hagan next year because “a lot of stuff is going to shake out about the ACA, and as it does, people are going to realize that the net benefit is great.”

“That doesn’t mean we won’t have a lot of work to do,” she added. But it’s holiday time, and people don’t want to talk politics, she said. “So for me this is a period of mapping out our game plan.”

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