When Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, voted last week to block a Republican attempt to repeal the 2010 health care law, his action on some levels was routine. The vote was straight along party lines, and the GOP effort was viewed largely as a symbolic gesture with little chance of success.
Within hours, however, the Republican public relations machine cranked into action, firing up press releases, videos and a website that attacked the newly minted senator for his vote and support of “the Obama agenda.”
“Despite his many campaign promises as he sought West Virginia’s Senate seat, Manchin has used his time in Washington to embrace President Obama’s liberal policies,” Brian Walsh, a spokesman with the Senate Republican’s campaign arm, said in an e-mail to reporters the morning after Wednesday’s vote on repeal of the health care law.
Although the next congressional elections are more than 18 months away, the vote served as the opening salvo of the 2012 Senate campaigns. Republicans vow to continue to hold Democrats accountable for their support of the measure.
“Those were difficult votes” for moderate Democrats, said Steve Lombardo, a Republican pollster and president of the Lombardo Consulting Group. “The [Democratic leaders in the Senate] needed their votes, and they got them. But now they’ll pay some political price.”
Mr. Manchin, elected in November to fill the seat of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a Democrat, isn’t the only moderate Democrat up for re-election in 2012 who could face a Republican-induced backlash for support of the president’s health care initiative. Other likely targets include Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Bill Nelson of Florida, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jon Tester of Montana.
Ben Nelson, in particular, has been hammered by Republicans since his initial support of the measure in late 2009.
Mr. Nelson, like many other moderate Democrats, said he doesn’t support scrapping the entire law but would consider tweaking or even repealing some of its provisions, including the “individual mandate” that will require most Americans to have health insurance or risk a penalty.
Mr. Nelson’s tactic could be enough to placate voters and keep them in office, especially if public concerns about the law fade over time, some political specialists say.
The law “is not wildly unpopular,” said John Fortier, a congressional analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank. “It’s just unpopular enough for Democrats in swing districts, but it’s not unpopular for 90 percent of them, so its not like the whole party has to fear” supporting it.
Other issues are likely to push aside health care reform as a signature issue of the 2012 elections, Mr. Lombardo said.
“No two campaigns are alike,” he said. “I would suspect that the next cycle is going to have its own set of characteristics that are going to differentiate from 2010.”
But with legal challenges to the law - with an expected last stop at the Supreme Court - the repeal debate will linger, said Sarah A. Binder, a congressional analyst with the Brookings Institution, a moderate Washington think tank.
“This is an issue that’s not going away,” she said. “And Republicans, for both policy and political reasons, think that it’s one of their hooks to building and regaining a [Senate] majority.”
Overplaying the health care card presents risks for both parties. Republicans hope the issue still will be relevant with voters by November 2012. Democrats are banking that the public soon will warm to the bill’s many reforms.