The early returns are in, and they’re bad news for the Republican gamble to pass a flawed health-care alternative to Obamacare.
Democratic candidates are on the attack, and Republicans are dissembling. In a couple of special congressional elections, the House Republicans’ American Health Care Act, which narrowly passed last week on a partisan vote and is embraced by President Donald Trump, is helping the Democrats.
Many Republicans who voted for the bill, which is designed to replace Obamacare, have ducked any big sessions with constituents while home on recess this week; the few who didn’t got a negative reaction.
This grass-roots backlash is similar to the reaction at town-hall forums against the Affordable Care Act, which passed in 2010.
Few Republicans in potentially competitive contests are encouraged by the claim by White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and House Speaker Paul Ryan that voters will reward the party for repealing and replacing Obamacare and by their suggestion that GOP candidates should run on it next year.
Nonpartisan political experts are saying the vote could endanger the Republicans’ House majority, and the initial polls indicate little support for the bill.
There are early tests in special House races.
In Georgia, running for the seat vacated by Trump’s Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Democratic candidate Joel Ossoff has openly assailed the House-passed bill. Republican aspirant Karen Handel offered a back-handed endorsement of it as a “first step,” saying, “It is important that we not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Then she changes the subject.
In another race, for a Republican-held seat in Montana, the Democratic candidate seized on criticizing the bill at every opportunity. The Republican candidate said he didn’t know enough of the details of the GOP plan to have an opinion, but then was caught in a private telephone call with Washington lobbyists praising passage of the legislation.
For those Republican candidates not in Congress, evading the issues is a popular course. “I’m not going to stand here and say if I were a congressman this is how I would have voted,” declared Josh Mandel, who is seeking the Republican Senate nomination in Ohio.
The other tack is to speculate that the Senate will rectify the House bill’s shortcomings, which include throwing millions off health-insurance rolls and gutting some protections for people with pre-existing conditions. This would get backers of the House legislation off the hook.
Experience suggests this may be wishful thinking.
In 1993, House Democrats walked the plank for President Bill Clinton and approved an energy tax. It died in the Senate, but came back anyway to haunt a number of its supporters in the Republican wave elected to Congress the following year.
In 2009, House Democrats approved a cap-and-trade energy measure, which also died in the Senate. The following year a few House members lost their seats, probably because of that vote.
Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.