Democrats used Obamacare to win California battlegrounds. Will it work again in 2020?

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, left, participates in a ceremonial swearing-in with new Rep. Mike Garcia (R-CA), right, with wife Rebecca, at the U.S. Capitol on May 19, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS)
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By Kate Irby McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Democrats trounced Republicans in the battle districts of California in 2018, largely by focusing on health care and the GOP efforts to dismantle Obamacare.

They cited the many times Republican congressmen tried to repeal Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act, and the failed effort to put in a Republican replacement. They drew attention to President Donald Trump’s attempts to pull down Obamacare piece by piece, portraying Republicans as uncaring about health care for low-income Americans.

It helped them flip seven Republican held seats, from Modesto to Orange County.

Now, with the novel coronavirus as a backdrop, Democrats have a new reason to trot out Obamacare as a campaign issue.

Trump asked the Supreme Court in a June brief to entirely throw out the Affordable Care Act. The administration argued Congress in 2017 rendered the law unconstitutional when it eliminated a key provision by negating the financial penalty known as the individual mandate for people who did not buy health insurance.

The administration filed the brief three months after the coronavirus outbreak led governors around the country to shut down commerce in a bid to slow the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of people turned to Obamacare coverage during the coronavirus pandemic, according to federal data, as millions have lost their jobs and employer-sponsored health care.

With Obamacare again at risk, Democrats think revisiting their 2017 health care message will help them win those same battle districts in 2020 — and possibly expand.

“Voters across the country and California have said time and again at the ballot box that access to affordable health care is not only critical to maintaining economic security for them and their families but also vital to building a better future for their children,” said Andy Orellana, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “The voters of California know this, but California Republicans like (congressional candidate) David Valadao who continue to subscribe to the reckless Trump Agenda still don’t seem to have gotten the message.”

The White House says it isn’t worried that it will lose seats because of its recent Supreme Court brief.

Judd Deere, White House deputy press secretary, also said Obamacare “limits patient choice, forces Americans to purchase unaffordable plans, and restricts patients with high-risk preexisting conditions from accessing the doctors and hospitals they need.”

GOP consultants contend that the Democratic messaging won’t pack as much of a punch this year, since Republicans, such as Michelle Steel of Orange County, are the challengers. That means Republicans don’t have records on Obamacare votes.

She’s facing off against Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda in California’s 48th Congressional District.

“In 2018 they (Democrats) were the challengers. Now when you look at someone like a Michelle Steel, she’s the challenger,” said Lance Trover, a spokesman for Steel. “It’s harder to make that stick.”

Democrats tried a health care message in May in a special election in Orange County, when Republican Mike Garcia faced Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith for the seat vacated by former Democratic Rep. Katie Hill.

The DCCC, Democrats’ campaign arm for House seats, tried to pin Garcia on health care many times before the special election, running ads and sending out news releases about his stance on Obamacare.

“A new study from the Urban Institute finds that over 5.2 million Californians could lose their employer-sponsored health insurance because of COVID-19-related job losses,” the DCCC said in one such release. “Despite that, Mike Garcia still supports repealing the Affordable Care Act.”

Garcia won the special election by nearly 10 points. But the circumstances around special elections and general ones can yield very different results, and Democrats are still confident that the tactic will pay off in November.

The California district held by Rep. TJ Cox, a Fresno Democrat, might be the California district where health care is most influential.

The district includes a lot of lower income farm workers — 33% of adults in the district are on Medicaid. Air quality in the San Joaquin Valley is poor, which causes a host of preexisting conditions such as asthma.

Latinos make up a majority of the district’s population, and they “have trouble getting access to health care, and that plays into it, too,” said Thomas Holyoke, a professor of political science at California State University, Fresno. “And we’ve seen that get worse with coronavirus.”

Valadao, a Republican from Hanford, is challenging Cox. Cox beat him in 2018, citing his votes to repeal Obamacare.

Now, Valadao’s stance on Obamacare has softened. He says he’s open to fixing Obamacare.

“He’s never been in support of the status quo. Health care isn’t working for Americans, so he’s in search of something that is better for people, whether that’s repealing Obamacare or fixing Obamacare,” said Robert Jones, a general consultant for Valadao’s campaign. “We have to explore ways to fix health care, short of government-run health care.”

Overall, Jones said he thinks the election will be decided more by voters’ feelings on federal leadership — Trump vs. former Vice President Joe Biden — more than any specific issue. And even if Trump doesn’t win the district, he thinks Valadao has “crossover appeal.”

“David has set himself apart in his views — (former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary) Clinton won by double digits in his district and he still won in 2016,” Jones said.

Other Republicans are less willing to state specific positions on Obamacare, even if they were previously against it.

Two other California candidates, Young Kim and Steel, have along with Valadao been identified as top 2020 candidates by the Republican Party. Kim is challenging Rep. Gil Cisneros.

Neither revealed to McClatchy where they stand on Obamacare, but Holyoke said purple district Republicans are likely hesitant to say they want to throw out Obamacare completely now.

“The ACA did provide a lot of opportunities for lower-income communities to get some health care. I don’t think Republicans would make an issue of keeping ACA, they might even say we need to try to save it,” said Holyoke, the California State University, Fresno professor. “That they want to work with Trump to find a way to make it better.”

Both Kim and Steel have previously said they opposed the measure — Steel in a 2014 op-ed called the rollout of Obamacare “disastrous.” Kim in 2018 said Obamacare was “nothing but broken promises.”

A media contact for Kim did not respond to a request for an interview on the health care issue. Trover, the media contact for Steel, would not specifically say if Steel supported repealing or fixing Obamacare. Steel is on the board for CalOptima, a health insurance system for low-income Californians.

“Michelle believes there needs to be better accessibility in our health care system, more choice, more affordable health care premiums and more affordable prescription medicines and that’s something that Obamacare in its current form fails to do,” Trover said. “She does support some aspects like preexisting conditions. What she does not support is socialized medicine.”

Trover pointed to Rouda’s support for “Medicare for All” as a health care stance that could sink his chances.

“This discussion on socialized medicine and single-payer is going to be just as critical to the debate as anything,” Trover said. “It’s much more difficult for Rouda to make something stick on Michelle, who says she supports preexisting conditions. She’ll say, ‘Harley Rouda supports taking away your private health insurance, repealing Obamacare and replacing it with Medicare for All.’ ”

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(McClatchy White House reporter Francesca Chambers contributed to this report.)
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