The dramatic downsize underscores not only how consequential the health care law vote was but how quickly moderate Democrats have been eliminated on Capitol Hill. Even those who opposed the law had trouble surviving the highly partisan atmosphere it helped to create.
With the divide only more pronounced in 2014, the final four are trying to avoid a similar fate. Obamacare remains a volatile issue, and all still tout their “no” vote. Yet their vulnerability also reflects a more daunting and long-lasting problem for lawmakers who would occupy the middle ground.
“I don’t think you can just look at the Affordable Care Act — you have to look at the broader picture,” said Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota. “You just don’t have many people like myself left. The moderates on the Republican side are gone, too.”
Although there are small signs that the health care law’s presence on the campaign trail is waning, Peterson and Reps. Daniel Lipinski of Illinois, John Barrow of Georgia and Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts continue to be challenged over whether they did enough to try to stop Obamacare.
“I think I’ve done more than maybe any member in the House to either sponsor, co-sponsor or vote for bills to make changes to it,” Lipinski said. “I know I have an opponent saying ‘repeal , repeal, repeal.’ But I think most people understand where we are at right now. They know changes need to be made. But they don’t want to throw the whole thing out.”
Lynch, one of the rare Democrats who opposed the health care law from the left, is the only one of the remaining four who doesn’t have an opponent in November. Lipinski, Barrow and Peterson, by contrast, have real campaigns ahead. They represent swing districts that the GOP has been working to reclaim for some time, and all face opponents trying to tie them to Obamacare and to capitalize on the continued unpopularity of both the law and President Barack Obama.
Rick Allen, the well-funded Republican hoping to unseat Barrow, has repeatedly blasted him for supporting the law, including a Facebook post that faulted him for voting “27 times against repealing, defunding or delaying Obamacare.” Peterson’s and Lipinski’s opponents have lobbed similar criticisms.
None of the four incumbents has voted to fully repeal the law, but each has backed bills to eliminate particularly disliked parts of Obamacare, such as the employer mandate or individual mandate.
Barrow, for one, turned down the government’s contribution to his health insurance. Lipinski is the lead Democrat on a measure to change the ACA’s “full time” definition from 30 hours to 40 hours. Both have co-sponsored several bills against parts of the law and voted for more.
Peterson hasn’t been quite as quick to lead the efforts against Obamacare, but he has joined Republicans on several pieces of anti-ACA legislation that have come to the House floor. While he knows the law played a big role in his 2012 race, he senses that its political liability is starting to diminish.
“The only time it comes up [with constituents] is when I bring it up,” said Peterson, who thinks the GOP overplayed its hand with dozens of repeal votes. “People are smarter than that. They know the Senate is Democratic and the president will be there another two years. Even if they wanted repeal, I think they’ve realized it’s not going to happen.”
Like the other three Democrats, he said he sees value in some parts of the ACA but would vote against it again today. He and the others have touted their opposition and taken steps to remind constituents of their 2010 vote. Both Lynch and Lipinski say they still have constituents thanking them.
“I get mostly really, really, really positive response,” Lynch said. “I think it’s because, as is usually the case with a 2,400-page bill, nobody read it. None of my constituents really realized the full details.”
As they seek reelection this fall, all four men find themselves somewhere in between the Democrats who support the law but are loathe to acknowledge its problems and the Republicans who can’t admit that it has benefits beyond eliminating denials based on preexisting conditions.
They are pushing a “fix it” line — as in, they didn’t support the law, but now that it’s here, they don’t want to repeal it. Instead, they want to repair the flaws they see in the legislation. Polling backs up the strategy.
“It’s the sweet spot in the polls — to be for improving the law, so you’re not for it but you’re not for denying people those benefits,” said Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Barrow, who has frequently supported GOP bills to repeal or undermine small portions of the law, is expecting his Republican challenger to use Obamacare against him.
“I’m sure it will be an issue for our opponent this fall,” a Barrow aide said. But the lawmaker is “never afraid to talk about it. He was adamantly opposed to the bill when it came out. … But now, he says this all the time: He’s the guy who has had prostate cancer, and he knows the value of preventive measures. He knows the value of not being able to deny something for preexisting conditions.”
The four Democrats are hoping to hang on where other moderates couldn’t.
Half of the 34 who voted against Obamacare in March 2010 lost their seats that November, overcome by the Republican wave that was powered in part by the law. Another four chose not to run for reelection.
Public sentiment hadn’t shifted much by 2012. And today, after defeats and retirements, only six Democrats of the original “no” votes remain. They include Reps. Jim Matheson of Utah and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, who announced their departures earlier this year.
Rep. Ben Chandler of Kentucky was among those defeated in 2012. He believes his vote against the law helped him win reelection in 2010, but he couldn’t pull out another tough race just two years later.
“I’m quite confident that had I voted for the Affordable Care Act, I would have lost in 2010,” Chandler said.
Obamacare has played “a huge role” in Democrats’ losses, he said. “When it was being debated, a whole bunch of us moderate Democrats were sitting in the back [of the House chamber], saying, this is going to be the end of us, we’ve got no chance to survive this.”