With voters still skeptical, dozens of Democrats inch away from Obamacare

McClatchy Washington BureauFebruary 20, 2014 

— Mark Kentley is the kind of voter who will help decide the short-term political verdict on the new health care law known as Obamacare.

A 27-year-old who studies business administration while working at the College of the Desert, he’s swung back and forth between the Democrats and the Republicans in the last two presidential elections. Now, he sits right in the middle of one of the most contested seats for the House of Representatives, and his dislike of the law will be a major factor in deciding who gets his vote this fall.

He resents that the government is forcing him to buy health insurance he doesn’t want. “They’re trying to reinvent the wheel,” he complained during a break at the student union.

What he and others like him decide will determine whether the Democrats ride out the storm of mistakes and protests over the new Affordable Care Act or whether the Republicans ride that to another wave of gains in the House, as they did in 2010 when they seized control.

The House district around Palm Springs is one of three in California that the Democrats could lose this fall. And the trend reaches to all corners of the country. For Democrats running for Congress in dozens of districts, the Affordable Care Act they once boasted about is one of the largest obstacles to their re-election bids in November.

In 2010, Democrats ignored the slew of attacks on the health care law only to lose more than 60 seats – and their majority – in the House and six seats in the Senate. Now they’re switching strategies, casting themselves as crusaders out to repair a broken law.

They call the law “imperfect” and “flawed.” They air television ads that highlight the need to “fix Obamacare.” They criticize President Barack Obama for the “disastrous” rollout of the website, healthcare.gov, and for breaking a promise to Americans that they could keep their health insurance if they liked it. Many defy the White House and support Republican proposals to change the law.

“I would not have thought it would still be an issue. But now I think this will be an issue through the campaign,” said Brian Nestande, a state legislator and one of the Republicans vying to challenge Rep. Raul Ruiz, the Democrat seeking a second term.

They are seeking the support of voters like Kentley and others in the Coachella Valley, a diverse slice of California filled with residents young and old, wealthy and destitute, natives and part of a burgeoning Hispanic immigrant population. There are golf courses, casinos and the famous resort town of Palm Springs.

Residents are split on health care – and most everything else. In recent years, they narrowly voted for Obama twice, but supported Republican candidates for governor and the U.S. Senate. Ruiz defeated Republican Rep. Mary Bono Mack, widow of pop music celebrity-turned-politician Sony Bono, whose name adorns a freeway and an airport concourse.

“It’s a tough line to walk,” said Pete Sturges, 68, a small business owner walking his dog, Peanut, at a park in downtown Palm Springs on a recent sunny afternoon. “He has to be a moderate Democrat. He has to capitulate. He has to support it but he can’t support it too much.”

Ruiz declined to comment for this story, as did the chairman of the state Democratic Party. Ruiz’s campaign consultant, Roy Behr, said the congressman has “credibility” on the issue because of his background as a former emergency room physician.

Ruiz was one of 39 House Democrats who defied the White House and voted for a Republican-backed bill to allow Americans to keep their health insurance plans for a year even if they did not comply with the new requirements – as Obama had promised. He was one of 22 Democrats who voted to delay the so-called individual mandate, which requires most Americans to have insurance or pay a penalty. Two other Democrats even voted to repeal the law, though both faced tough re-elections and have since decided to retire.

“I have been blunt and outspoken about my frustration with flaws in the new health care law,” said Rep. Scott Peters, a Democrat from the San Diego area, one of the three Democrats in California and 24 to 40 nationwide in potentially vulnerable seats.

“Let’s fix it and make it better,” said Rep. Ami Bera from Northern California, the third. “That’s the approach I took. We’re in divided government. Republicans and Democrats have to be able to find common ground.”

Bera, also a doctor, works to avoid being labeled with the rest of his fellow Democrats in Washington. He criticized “Washington, D.C., GOP cookie-cutter politics” to use a potentially divisive issue whether it fits the local race or not. He said the law is not what he would have preferred had he been in office in 2010, but now that it is he and others should take a pragmatic approach to try to fix it.

Doug Ose, a former Republican congressman who is running against Bera, complained that Democrats like Bera defend the law while in Washington but run away from it while in their districts. “People are tired of the two-faced nature of our public officials,” he said.

The law does remain unpopular. Only 38 percent of Americans approve of it, according to a Realclearpolitics.com average of national polls. A CBS News poll in January shows that 56 percent of people believe changes need to be made for it to work better, though only 34 percent said the law needs to be repealed.

Most Republican candidates want to repeal the law, which they argue is too expensive, too inaccessible and too confusing, though some acknowledge that parts, including those that provide insurance to people with pre-existing conditions and children up to age 26, are beneficial.

People are frustrated with the problems continuing to mount,” said Carl DeMaio, a former San Diego City Council member and a Republican candidate running against Peters. “People are extremely upset. There are real human impacts.”

Conservative groups are spending millions of dollars on television ads in states from Alaska to North Carolina, trying to tie Democrats to the health care law or mocking them for running away from it as they look to take control of the Democratic-led Senate and gain seats in the Republican-controlled House.

Any Democratic losses, of course, could be offset by Democratic gains elsewhere.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney dismissed any talk this week that health care would hurt Democrats at the polls this fall.

“This has gone from an abstract debate to one that involves real people whose lives would be adversely affected by the success of an effort to take away dramatically the benefits that they enjoy,” he said. “I think everybody who’s running on a repeal platform needs to explain why their constituents . . . should have those benefits taken away.”

The fact that some Democrats are working to stress their own complaints about the law, even in California, underscores how much it remains an open political question.

California, where Democrats run state government, was the first state to set up its own exchange, though it, too, has had problems, including long waits, flawed eligibility notices and mistakes in a physicians directory. Just recently, the state temporarily shut down its online marketplace for small business four months after it launched.

Here, even supporters of Obama and his health care law express frustration at repeated problems.

“I don’t know if this was the best way to go about it,” said teacher Courtney Doussett, 37, as she sipped coffee outside a Starbucks in a Rancho Mirage shopping center. “But we needed to do something.”

Email: akumar@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @anitakumar01

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