House Democrats think they’ve finally found their path back to power: Republicans voting to repeal Obamacare.
Yes, the best thing to happen to House Democrats since they pushed through the sprawling health care law — and lost the majority as a result — could be the Republican drive to dismantle it.
“I think the Republicans are playing Russian roulette with this vote,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). “There’s no question in competitive districts where you’ve got a potentially vulnerable Republican incumbent, this could make or break you.”
Democrats don’t actually want the law repealed. Under their dream scenario, House GOP leaders would muscle through their controversial health care bill only to watch it die a long, painful death in the Senate, where it has already received a lukewarm reception from Republicans. Obamacare would stay intact while the House Republicans who voted to gut the law have a big shiny target on their back heading into the 2018 midterms.
“I think there will be a political price to pay at the ballot box in 2018,” Rep. Linda Sánchez of California, vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, told reporters Tuesday.
Democrats know a thing or two about the political price of Obamacare. Republicans channeled anti-Obamacare fervor in 2010 to take back the House, costing Democrats a whopping 63 seats and the majority along the way. Republicans have found success campaigning on repeal of the law in the seven years since, dashing Democratic efforts to take back House control.
Now, with the law’s support ticking up and Republicans without a popular alternative of their own, Democrats are hoping to flip the tables in their favor.
The House GOP bill in its current form would allow states to opt out of key Obamacare protections for people with pre-existing conditions and requirements that insurers offer coverage for maternity care and mental health benefits.
The attack ads write themselves, Democrats argue. And they are betting the House on it.
After seven years in the minority, rank-and-file members, many of whom were elected after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s tenure as speaker, are restless. There are even whispers of a push for wholesale leadership changes if Democrats don’t post big wins in November 2018.
Taking back the House majority is an enormous lift, even in a midterm year when voters tend to favor the party not in the White House. But Democrats think Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare — even if they’re not successful — could be the galvanizing message they need to bring people to the polls.
“I think there’s no doubt we can take back the majority of the House in 2018” if the election were today, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said. The challenge, he added, is maintaining that enthusiasm for the next 18 months.
There are already positive signs for Democrats.
Democratic candidates, in part buoyed by fierce resistance to President Donald Trump, ran competitive House races last month in traditional Republican strongholds in Kansas and Georgia. And there are 23 Republicans sitting in districts Hillary Clinton won last year, giving House Democrats’ campaign arm a good starting place to carving a path back to the majority.
Right now, there are no guarantees the House will even vote on a bill. High-profile defectors like former House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) have put the latest Obamacare repeal effort on life support.
On Tuesday, Republican leaders were still shy of the 216 votes they need to pass the bill and scheduled a members-only meeting Thursday to reassess the bill’s status before a weeklong recess scheduled to begin later that day.
Democrats know that if Republicans cobble together the votes — still a big “if” — there’s nothing they can do as the minority party to stop the repeal from passing. And publicly, few House Democrats will say there’s an upside to House Republicans voting to repeal the law.
“Our job is to not let this see the light of day or the Senate chamber,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), a leadership ally, said in an interview. Democrats will hold a news conference Wednesday with people with pre-existing conditions to spotlight the GOP’s divide on the issue.
But privately, several Democratic lawmakers readily acknowledge a repeal vote would provide a silver lining. In fact, they plan to make sure the latest push will haunt even those GOP members who oppose the proposal.
“You can’t run away from this vote because it’s your leadership,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley of New York. “Even people who vote no if this bill comes to the floor.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already hit Republicans who voted for an earlier version of the health bill in committee. And just last week, before many Republicans had even weighed in on the latest proposal, the DCCC launched digital ads in 30 districts held by vulnerable Republicans.
That drumbeat will be even more relentless if Republicans actually bring the bill to the floor.
“I think we feel increasingly that public opinion has swung to our point of view. And that accountability is going to be a big factor in next year’s election because of this vote,” Connolly said. “There’s a cadre of 35 to 40 Republicans who are staring death in the face if they give their vote.”