WASHINGTON – Republicans preparing to challenge U.S. Sen. Al Franken next year may not have a leading candidate, but they believe they’ve been handed a gold-plated issue in the tumultuous rollout of President Obama’s health care overhaul.
While Obama famously said he will never face another election, the same is not true for Franken, who became an instant GOP target after his 2009 recount win over Republican Norm Coleman. In a narrowly divided Senate, Franken’s support for the Affordable Care Act later proved critical to its passage.
Franken has largely steered clear of controversy in the Senate and continues to poll well at home. But while he is in a commanding position going into 2014, Franken faces a national GOP playbook that is betting heavily on worsening problems in the implementation of the massive health care law widely known as Obamacare.
Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus has vowed to “tattoo it to their forehead in 2014.” Obama has acknowledged the “burden” the rollout has put on Democrats.
Franken, like other Senate Democrats facing re-election, has pressed feverishly to repair damage that appears to be escalating well beyond the technical glitches that have plagued the HealthCare.gov website.
Low initial enrollment numbers, canceled policies and widespread discontent with the website are contributing to a sense of siege among Democrats in Congress.
One Democratic lawmaker recently told The Hill newspaper that Franken appeared visibly “agitated” during a recent briefing by White House officials. In a subsequent White House meeting, Franken said he and other Democrats expressed their “frustration” with the federal website, which is separate from MNsure, the site for Minnesota’s health care exchange.
Several of the senators accompanying Franken were red-state Democrats facing re-election: Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Mark Begich of Alaska. Franken, in contrast, hails from a purple state where the law has been more widely embraced.
But amid Obama’s sinking poll numbers, it has become increasingly clear that HealthCare.gov’s glitches, if not fixed, could become a political liability for Democrats in 2014, a second-term election cycle that historically has gone badly for any weakened president’s party.
Franken’s campaign is taking note of the new GOP attack line. In a recent fundraising e-mail to supporters, Franken campaign manager Matt Burgess noted that even with Franken’s strong showing in a recent poll, “Republican operatives from Minnesota and Washington are suddenly excited about their chances.”
While the campaign is “not pushing any panic buttons,” Burgess said, the campaign has raised its November fundraising goal to $150,000. Burgess added in the e-mail: “I’m urging supporters like you to take this threat seriously.”
Minnesota Republicans have sharpened their attacks on administration missteps in the health care rollout to rally their conservative base and weaken Franken, who has amassed nearly $4 million for a re-election bid against a yet-to-be-named GOP challenger.
Minnesota businessman Mike McFadden, perhaps the most visible Republican contender, has released a web ad based on a 2009 Franken Senate speech in which he said that “people who are happy with their current plan, wouldn’t need to change it” — an echo of a widely criticized promise for which Obama has apologized.
Franken aides say the statement was made only in the context of advocating for a public health insurance option.
But Republicans believe they have found a Franken weak spot.
“He hinged his political career on the merits of Obamacare,” Minnesota GOP Chairman Keith Downey said of Franken, “and he was silent when the administration was lying about the issue.”
House Republicans, recovering from the internal divisions of the government shutdown, garnered nearly 40 Democratic votes Friday to pass a bill that would allow insurers to continue selling policies that do not meet the new federal standards.
In an effort to calm the public and quell Democratic unease, Obama announced that expiring policies can be renewed for one year, a move Franken called “a step in the right direction.”
But otherwise, Franken has treaded cautiously through the latest thicket in the Obamacare debate, saying he is “still reviewing the details of the President’s proposal to determine whether it’s sufficient.”
Franken remains an unwavering champion of the health care law, which was conceived to bring coverage to some 30 million uninsured Americans. He frequently highlights a provision he authored requiring that insurance companies spend at least 80 to 85 cents of every premium dollar on health care and which has generated millions of dollars in consumer rebates.
In response to the disastrous rollout of the government health exchange website, Franken has said he would be “open” to delaying the final March 31 enrollment deadline. But only if the problems continue. He has not joined calls to delay the individual mandate, as have some Democrats facing election.
“Sen. Franken shares Minnesotans’ frustration with the problems in the initial rollout of HealthCare.gov,” Burgess said. “He’s focused on making the Affordable Care Act work for Minnesota.”
Franken supporters emphasize Minnesota’s low health insurance premiums and the relatively problem-free launch of MNsure, factors that could blunt GOP attacks in the state. Democrats also argue that while the website has been a PR disaster, it does not signify a bad law.
“People are frustrated, disappointed that it cost so much to fix this problem, that it should have been done right the first time,” said Minnesota DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin. “But they’re not saying we should go back to the days the Republicans want to take us back to.”
Both sides are keenly aware that with a year to go before voters go to the polls, a lot can happen. Americans United for Change, a Democratic-allied group, has been circulating a Wall Street Journal piece by Princeton economist Alan Blinder, a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve. While defending the law, Blinder sounds a note of caution.
“I fear that what is being sloughed off by some [Affordable Care Act] supporters as merely bad PR might wind up being a great deal more damaging,” Blinder wrote. “Remember, in politics, spin is often more important than reality.”
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