The race to fill former Sen. John F. Kerry's seat is shaping up as an unexpected test for President Obama's health care overhaul in Massachusetts — the state that provided the blueprint for the administration's signature achievement.
The runoff for the Democratic nomination pits Rep. Edward J. Markey, who supported the Affordable Care Act, against Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, who broke with the rest of his congressional delegation in voting no — bolstering Mr. Lynch's reputation as the most conservative of Massachusetts' nine Democratic congressmen.
Now almost three years later, there are signs that support among some of the law's strongest backers is softening — in particular among some of the state's labor unions.
"We have serious concerns," said Francis X. Callahan Jr., head of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council, a 75,000-member union that endorsed Mr. Lynch last week.
Mr. Callahan and Edward Kelly, head of the 12,000-strong Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, which also endorsed Mr. Lynch, said they are concerned that the health care law will jeopardize the gold-plated benefit packages, known as "Cadillac Plans," that unions have negotiated in lieu of higher wages.
"As much as we strongly believed in health care for all, it is not a perfect bill," Mr. Kelly said. "We don't think that our health care should be taxed."
Mr. Lynch, a former ironworker who is pro-life, is banking on strong union support to help him overcome Mr. Markey's sizable financial edge.
"I am getting a lot of complaints from labor unions and small businesses regarding the impact of the Affordable Care Act and those are constituencies that actually supported the act. And they are asking for amendments and changes," Mr. Lynch told The Washington Times. "So, it is wearing much better now than when the bill first passed because no one really understood why I was opposing it. But now suddenly they realize the downside."
"There are already a lot of people on the Democratic side who are pushing for huge changes in the law because they realize it has a lot of problems," Mr. Lynch said. "The idea was to pass it now and fix it later, but I don't think they realized how difficult it would be to get changes."
The health care law would appear to be a natural fit for Massachusetts, home to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, arguably the most influential lawmaker behind the landmark health care law.
It's also where Mitt Romney signed into law a universal health care system — a move that haunted the Republican governor in the 2012 presidential race, when the Obama campaign had a field day reminding voters that Massachusetts had been the model for the federal law.
Still, Mr. Markey, the dean of the Massachusetts delegation in Washington, is favored to win the Democratic runoff, which will decide who moves on to the June 25 special election.
A WBUR-FM poll released last week found that 38 percent of likely Democratic primary voters support Mr. Markey, while 31 percent support Mr. Lynch.
Mr. Markey also has won the backing of Mr. Kerry, former Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee -- as well as the powerful Massachusetts Teachers Association.
Mr. Markey's campaign did not return a call seeking comment for this story.
Despite the strong support for Mr. Markey, Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant, said that Mr. Lynch is hold his own and his opposition to the health care law has not torpedoed his campaign.
"This is Ed Markey's to lose, but he is up against Steve Lynch, who is a master of defying expectations," Ms. Marsh. "I think Lynch, so far, is doing a really quite a good job of trying to explain his stance on some of these issues, whether it is Affordable Care Act, or abortion, that in a Democratic primary in Massachusetts would normally be a real hurdle for him. He is doing a really pretty impressive job of explaining those positions to voters."
Mr. Callahan and Mr. Kelly said that they understand, and respect, that Mr. Lynch opposed the health care law because he was concerned that it would take money out of their pockets.
"Even though it was an unpopular position to take in many circles, we think that really helps us define who Stephen Lynch is: someone who will stand up for what is right," Mr. Kelly said.
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