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Minnesota Republicans searching for a way to defeat DFL Gov. Mark Dayton are seizing on an issue they believe could help upend his bid for a second term — the tumultuous rollout of the state's health insurance exchange.
Republicans are escalating attacks on Dayton as troubles with the MNsure exchange threaten to drag into the campaign season. Last week, the Republican National Committee filed a massive data request seeking details on enrollment information and the hiring and abrupt resignation of MNsure's former director, April Todd-Malmlov.
National Republican groups are planning to use what they gather as part of a strategy to target Dayton and other Democratic governors by showcasing the local stumbles of President Obama's Affordable Care Act. In a sign of that emerging tactic, a Twin Cities group is passing out buttons with a picture of a grimacing Dayton under the words "Governor Obamacare."
Ben Golnik, a Republican strategist and former Minnesota state party executive director, said Dayton and other Minnesota Democrats should expect what's coming. "They bought this thing lock, stock and barrel," he said. "The rollout was a fiasco. Let's face it, they own this thing."
The ongoing trouble with the state's exchange comes as Dayton begins his campaign for a second term. He has a story that most governors would be eager to tell voters. The state's economy and budget are in better shape than when he took office, unemployment is lower and he made good on several significant campaign promises, including balancing the budget without accounting gimmicks and paying back billions owed to the state's public schools.
But Dayton also is heading into an election year filled with other uncertainties. Some signs of voter fatigue with President Obama and the health care rollout could give Republicans the bump they need to reclaim the governor's office in Minnesota and elsewhere.
"If the problems continue through the summer and well into fall, it will be an election issue," said DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin.
Dayton was early backer
MNsure was supposed to be a national model for smooth implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which had early and strong backing from Dayton. Instead, the program has been hit by high-profile problems and delays.
The state's crash-prone website routinely was clogged with maddening delays as people made last-ditch attempts to enroll. MNsure had to double check eligibility upward of 40,000 applicants and some customers are still not sure they have coverage. In the latest fit of drama, MNsure's director was forced to resign after disclosing she took a Costa Rican vacation as problems worsened and the state's legislative auditor says that scrutiny of the site has become his top priority.
Dayton himself has been an outspoken critic of the troubled launch, saying the inconvenience for Minnesotans is unacceptable.
"I am absolutely committed to doing whatever is possible," Dayton said Friday. "My focus is on getting this working the way it should."
Republicans argue that Dayton's outrage is calculated as political cover, that it's disingenuous for the leader of state government to criticize MNsure as if he were a powerless spectator.
"The fact is, the governor didn't manage this at all," said Minnesota GOP Chairman Keith Downey. "In some ways, it is the classic big-government failure and the governor should be accountable for that."
Democrats are banking that soon they will have another, far more positive story to tell. If the glitches are resolved before the heart of election season, complaints about long phone waits and balky websites could be replaced by powerful stories of Minnesotans freed from the worry of living without health insurance.
By the end of 2013, nearly 68,000 Minnesotans had signed up. The state's goal is for the number to be about 126,000 by the end of March.
"When all the problems go away, what arguments do Republicans have to hold onto? That more people are getting health insurance? That people with pre-existing conditions now have health insurance?" the DFL's Martin asked rhetorically.
Call for a special session
Republicans aren't waiting for that moment. Recently, state Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary's Point, asked Dayton to call lawmakers into special session to deal with MNsure's problems.
"I will not sit idly by while Minnesotans suffer because a bloated, unelected bureaucracy has failed," said Housley, a possible candidate for governor. "The urgency could not be greater."
Democrats blasted Republicans for seeking a special legislative session without offering any solutions. Dayton did not call lawmakers back to St. Paul. The Legislature reconvenes at the end of February.
Democrats hope other successes in the upcoming legislative session will put some distance between Dayton and MNsure in the mind of voters. Dayton and DFL legislators are looking at passing a sizable increase in the minimum wage, a tax cut for businesses and middle-class residents and a host of government streamlining — a menu that could have strong appeal to a wide array of voters.
"I certainly think there will be a lot of accomplishments and progress made as Minnesotans decide who to vote for in the next election," said Dayton campaign manager Katharine Tinucci.
And there is a chance the political dynamics surrounding MNsure could shift as more people acquire health insurance.
The numbers are already beginning to shift underneath the larger political conversation, and success stories are emerging.
'I was thrilled with it'
Small business owner Karin Alexander of Maple Grove bought insurance through MNsure. She went without coverage about a year after the policies she found on the open market proved too expensive.
Like many, Alexander experienced repeated delays as the MNsure website crashed again and again. Her frustration grew as the deadline loomed and it took more than a week to sign up.
But when she finally got her plan, Alexander said, "it was cheaper insurance and better coverage. I was thrilled with it."
That immediately made her loyal to MNsure and to the man whom she credits with ushering it into existence.
"I think there are lots of people like me who would come to Dayton's rescue and say, 'MNsure is a great thing,' " Alexander said.
State Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, said MNsure's problems could have more staying power than Democrats expect. Early numbers show that about a fourth of those signing up are the young, healthy Minnesotans who will be depended on to fund the system by paying premiums without needing much care. If the system is weighted down with too many older, sicker clients, Republicans say taxpayers may need to bail out the program in years to come.
"There is not a single Republican fingerprint on MNsure," Scott said. "We tried to warn the Democrats that this is exactly what it was going to do."
Some DFL activists who will be the backbone of Dayton's re-election effort remain concerned that a continued trickle of bad news out of MNsure could be a drag on the governor's campaign.
Sara Barrow, a DFL activist from Golden Valley, and other Democrats are bracing for waves of national ads bashing the rollout in Minnesota and elsewhere.
"It is what it is. It's a website. It didn't go great," Barrow said.