Since winning his primary, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) — the man who has repeatedly voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act “root and branch” — is embracing key tenets of reform, which has provided health care coverage to hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians.
Speaking to reporters last week, McConnell reiterated his support for repealing the ACA, but suggested that the state’s health exchange, established with $252 million in federal grants, should not be dismantled. Campaign manager Jesse Benton and other campaign advisers later doubled down on the claim and went even further, arguing that Kentucky should also maintain the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid.
The state has been a model for effective Affordable Care Act implementation, enrolling over 400,000 people in health insurance coverage since October.
“Obamacare loosened eligibility requirements for Medicaid recipients, and in the process, helped find many who were already eligible but no enrolled,” Benton told the Washington Post. “These people would remain eligible even after a repeal. The federal government does allow states flexibility in setting requirements and Kentucky could be able to keep many of the newly enrolled in the program if we decided to.”
The comments aim to repackage the key tenets of President Obama’s health care law, its exchange of private plans and funding for Medicaid expansion, as unique Kentucky solutions, designed and built by state officials far away from Washington D.C. It’s a page right out of the Democrats’ playbook: embrace the most popular elements of the law without having to carry any of its political baggage. Polling shows that when health reform is dubbed “KyNect,” more registered voter hold a favorable view of its benefits. “Obamacare” elicits a far more negative opinion.
This is why Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, McConnell’s opponent, won’t defend the law in its entirety. Asked to clarify her position on the measure, a campaign spokesperson points reporters to a Courier-Journal voter guide, in which Grimes commends the state’s expansion of the Medicaid program and maintains that “Kentuckians deserve fair flexibility to insure their families are not bankrupted by the lack of access to affordable health care.” She adds that “the Affordable Care Act is not perfect; there are parts that need to be fixed.”
Voters are hearing a muddled position from candidates — vulnerable Democrats and Republicans — across America. Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Mark Pryor (D-AR), Kay Hagan (D-NC) have all touted separate provisions of the Affordable Care Act in their states, but pledged to fix the law as a whole. A growing number of Republicans have slowly embraced the “fix it” rhetoric, specifically highlighting “what aspects of the law they would repeal” rather than shredding the measure entirely. For instance, a recent spate of ads released by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on McConnell’s behalf portrayed the Senate Minority Leader as “leading the fight to fix this Obamacare mess” without mentioning the words “replace” or “repeal.”
Democrats, however, are weary of criticizing the GOP’s sudden rhetorical shift, worried that any bold statements about Obamacare will prove to be a political liability — and further tie the candidate to the unpopular president. Grimes’ campaign waited five days before weighing in on McConnell’s embrace of the state’s health care exchange and a campaign spokesperson emailed to reiterate her on-the-record position on the law when asked to respond to the McConnell campaign’s latest comments.
Justin Barasky, National Press Secretary for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), did tell ThinkProgress that McConnell “now finds himself struggling to defend his wildly unpopular position” and “has absolutely no credibility on the issue.”
Greg Sargent points out that a growing number of Republican candidates have adopted McConnell’s strategy.
This post has been updated to include the Grimes’ campaign response.