N.C. Democrats: Too early to worry about health care rollout’s election impact

Renee Schoof

County Democratic leaders in North Carolina have been watching weeks of Republican attacks on Sen. Kay Hagan over the Affordable Care Act. From the state’s cities to its low-wage rural counties, they say they don’t think the issue will crush their party’s chances to defend Hagan’s U.S. Senate seat next November.

The local Democratic chiefs say that voters will have other issues on their minds in the months ahead, and they argue that it’s too early to know what the public will think of the health care changes by then.

Republicans have made the health care law their top attack on Hagan as they try to unseat her in next year’s race. Local Democratic officials say they can’t afford the multimillion-dollar ad buys, and so are left trying to persuade people one by one to give the new law a chance. They also have to wait to see if the health insurance shopping site, HealthCare.gov, starts working properly. The White House set Saturday as its own deadline for making it work for most people.

“Of course we’re hopeful that you start to see very tangible benefits and you have more people that are able to step forward and say, ‘Hey this is great, this is doing wonderful things for me’ between now and next November," said Dan Blue III, the Wake County Democratic chair. "But it’s still early.”

He predicted that, overall, health care would be a positive for Democrats.

“There will be some, as with any change, that are going to be adversely impacted by it,” Blue said. “But by and large there are extremely large portions of North Carolina that are going to see an improvement in their health care.”

“I think people want to know more (about how the Affordable Care Act will work), but I don’t think it’s having the total impact the Republican Party wanted it to have," said Mecklenburg Democratic chair Robin Bradford.

“They’re understanding we’re not going to get as much, and why is that? Well, it’s your state government championing the fact that they don’t want it here in the state, and in doing so they had to take out a piece that they could take out,” she said.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican leaders in the General Assembly decided not to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. They also decided not to set up a state-run health insurance exchange, sending North Carolina residents to the federal site to choose health insurance options. Residents of states with their own health insurance exchanges haven’t encountered the same kinds of problems with their state websites as have plagued the federal site.

Mecklenburg, like Wake, Forsyth, Chatham and other counties, voted for President Barack Obama and also Republican McCrory in 2012. Democrats and nonpartisan groups have been holding meetings to explain the health care law.

Susan Campbell, who leads Forsyth County Democrats, agreed that more information was needed.

“Let’s get some education out there and help folks understand what is the ACA and what can it do for you and how can you get signed on and where do you go to get help and all that, which should have been done months ago,” she said.

Local Democrats haven’t done a lot to get their message out yet, but Campbell said it will be along the lines of this: “Why wouldn’t we want health care for everyone? Isn’t that a good thing? Yes, it’s complicated and yes it’s having problems launching. We hate that, and I’m every hopeful it will start working better soon.”

Campbell said she’s personally better off. She has a pre-existing condition, and under the law her insurance cost went down.

In solidly Democratic Orange County, chairman Matthew Hughes said he also talks about the people he knows who also have medical conditions that made it difficult to get insurance before the law went into effect.

“It’s not just because Orange County is a super-blue county. But I think a lot of people recognize this is an important program and it’s going to help them. It’s going to help them save money in the long run and be healthier,” Hughes said.

But is the health care law hurting Hagan there now?

“I can’t speak specifically on that, but the people I speak to still hold the Affordable Care Act in high regard,” he said. And they aren’t surprised there were early technical problems, he added.

State Republicans said the county Democrats are wrong.

"If Democrats want the 2014 election to be a referendum on Obamacare, they aren’t going to like the results next November. Obamacare has been a complete disaster and it’s the reason why the White House and vulnerable incumbents like Kay Hagan have been trying to conveniently delay key provisions until after the 2014 election. The worst of Obamacare is still yet to come," said state Republican spokesman Daniel Keylin.

Keylin and national Republicans seeking to defeat Hagan say the Greensboro Democrat misled the public when she said that people would be able to keep insurance plans they liked. That was the case for the vast majority of people, but not all. Some saw their policies cancelled because they did not comply with the new law.

Hagan voted for the law and stands by it. She argues that it will help by allowing people with pre-existing conditions to sign up for health insurance and ending lifetime caps on coverage. She proposed letting people keep existing plans, something Obama later agreed to do.

Hagan also hasn’t edged away from the White House. Vice President Joe Biden attended a fundraiser for her recently in Chapel Hill. At another recent event in Raleigh, Hagan said she looked forward to Obama visiting the state to campaign for her as well.

But her numbers are down.

Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh-based, Democrat-leaning firm, reported earlier this month that Hagan had lost her lead over potential Republican challengers and that 49 percent disapproved of her, up from 39 percent in September.

American for Prosperity, a tea-party-allied advocacy group funded by the conservative brothers David and Charles Koch of Koch Industries, spent $1.7 million on a television ad that highlighted Hagan’s support for the health care law. "Who gets stuck with the bill? Families and small businesses," it said. This month, AFP put out another ad, at $1.5 million, against the health care law and Hagan.

Blue said that in Wake and all other counties, grassroots Democrats don’t have the money to go head-to-head with negative advertising with ads of their own. That leaves them going door to door instead. The ads are the job of the big Democratic PACs.

In Robeson and Bladen counties, local officials said many people have such low wages that they haven’t been able to afford health insurance.

John McNeill, the Democratic party chairman in Robeson, said that if the website problems are solved and things move smoothly and the public sees benefits in the Affordable Care Act, it will help Hagan.

But if the problems persist, voters could once again punish the Democrats, as they did over unemployment in 2010, he said.

But county residents need better information about the health insurance changes, he said.

"You will hear, ‘Government shouldn’t be in charge of my health care,’" he said, adding that he responds "well, of course government regulates private insurance, and it has Medicaid and Medicare."

William Hemphill, Democratic chair of Bladen County, said people there were worried about how to survive, not about the health care law.

"We’ve got people who make less than $2,000 a month," said Hemphill, who moved to the county, where his wife grew up, after he retired from the Postal Service in Baltimore.

The top issue in Bladen County, Hemphill said, is jobs.

Many people there aren’t signing up for health insurance because they don’t understand the system, he said. "And the other ones figure, ‘Insurance? I can’t even pay my bills.’"

Hemphill said there haven’t been meetings to explain the new insurance system in his area. He hoped that state Democrats would organize some.

Some of the county Democrats said that if House Speaker Thom Tillis wins the Republican primary and becomes Hagan’s opponent, other issues will come to the fore.

"The Affordable Care Act and the disinformation being disseminated about it is huge,” said Jan Nichols, Democratic chair in Chatham County. But issues likely to emerge in the race are state school finance and voter identification laws, she said.

Nichols said it’s too early to say whether the negative ads on the Affordable Care Act would hurt Hagan next year because "a lot of stuff is going to shake out about the ACA and as it does, people are going to realize that the net benefit is great."

"That doesn’t mean we won’t have a lot of work to do," she added. But it’s holiday time, and people don’t want to talk politics, she said. "So for me this is a period of mapping out our game plan."

By Renee Schoof
McClatchy Washington Bureau