When it comes to projecting election results, history can be a guide, but no two cycles are the same.
From the women’s marches to town hall protests, Democrats were feeling emboldened about the next elections even before Republicans fumbled their attempt to repeal the 2010 health care law. Democratic optimism grew (as well as media comparisons to a certain previous midterm election involving health care) as polling revealed that the GOP alternative was less popular than the health care status quo.
But the Republican comeback in 2010 was fueled by more than what President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats did on health care that year.
This year, President Donald Trump and Republicans on the Hill attempted to fulfill a long-standing campaign promise by repealing Obama’s signature health care law and replacing it with their alternative. Republicans didn’t have enough support and eventually pulled the bill before a full vote.
But to the delight of Democratic strategists, many Republicans were already on the record as supporting the bill by voting for it in committee and by their comments to the media. A March 16-21 Quinnipiac survey showed 56 percent of voters disapproved of the “Republican health care plan to replace Obamacare, known as the American Health Care Act,” while just 17 percent approved. Part of the problem was that just 41 percent of Republicans supported it, the poll found.
Both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee unveiled digital and television ads about the Republicans’ efforts on health care. The DCCC targeted 14 GOP incumbents.
Apples to oranges?
Heading for a midterm with one party in control of the White House and Congress, and burdened by an unpopular health care plan, reporters immediately jumped to 2010 for guidance on what will happen in 2018. But it’s not a clean comparison.
A 2010 ad, “Nancy Pelosi’s Rubber Stamp,” from the National Republican Congressional Committee against Democratic Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina is a prime example.
“For years, Congressman John Spratt was listening to South Carolina. Since Nancy Pelosi took over, he’s become a rubber stamp,” the narrator intoned ominously. “The cap-and-trade energy tax? Spratt voted yes. The Wall Street bailout? Spratt, yes. The wasteful stimulus bill? You betcha. And Obama’s health care bill? Spratt, yes, yes, every time.”
“John Spratt. He’s not our congressman anymore. He works for her,” the spot concluded.
This ad demonstrates the Democrats’ liabilities beyond health care.
“Obamacare” came to symbolize a Republican pre-existing condition to hate government overreach, but congressional Democrats were also saddled with the so-called cap-and-trade bill, auto bailout, Wall Street bailout, and the stimulus bill.
“It was the cumulative effect of an ideology run amok,” said one veteran GOP consultant looking back at 2010.
Democrats were also clinging to districts that were moving away from their party. Al Gore, John Kerry, and Obama all lost Spratt’s 5th District in the three presidential elections before the congressman lost re-election that year. And Obama’s 7-point loss in 2008 was the closest of those contests.
Spratt lost re-election, 55-45 percent, to Republican Mick Mulvaney, who just left the House to become President Trumps’ director of the Office of Management & Budget.
The health care law was a catalyst for a historic Republican gain of 63 House seats in 2010, but according to the National House Exit Poll that cycle, 63 percent of voters said the economy was the most important issue facing the country, compared to the second-place issue, health care, which registered at 18 percent. (Another 8 percent said illegal immigration was the most important and 7 percent picked war in Afghanistan).
Even if the GOP effort or the topic of health care isn’t at the top of voters’ minds in 19 months, Democrats are trying to capitalize on the issue now by raising money and recruiting candidates who are compelled to come off the sidelines after watching Republicans deal with health care and are alarmed by the alternatives.
Republicans will have to wrestle with whether to make another attempt at changing health care policy. They risk a backlash from moderate voters if the GOP alternative is unacceptable or worse than the status quo, but also risk turning off Republican voters who have lost faith in their GOP elected officials.
Of course, Democrats are hoping that health care will be just one part of a Trump agenda that voters won’t like and will consequently take out their frustration on GOP candidates.
Even though Trump’s path to the White House didn’t fall neatly into a historical box, past election trends are still helpful in projecting the results. But there are no carbon copies.