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‘Obamacare’ not playing a leading role in state campaigns

Law takes back seat to economy, personalities

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President Obama's health care law may be a partisan flash point on Capitol Hill, but unique factors have forced it to play a supporting role in spring campaigns to fill empty seats in Congress.

Voters in Massachusetts are exhibiting "been there, done that" sentiments about the health care law ahead of a special election next month for the Senate seat of Secretary of State John F. Kerry.

And in South Carolina, low-country voters will head to the polls Tuesday after focusing on the economy and personalities involved in the high-profile race to fill a House seat left by Tim Scott, a Republican who was appointed to the U.S. Senate to fill the seat of Jim DeMint.

It's a contrast to Washington, where the Affordable Care Act offers Republican lawmakers plenty of fodder for political put-downs and told-you-so speeches before key provisions of Mr. Obama's law take effect in 2014.

A growing number of Democrats also fear that state-based insurance markets tied to the law will not be ready before open enrollment in October.

The campaign in Massachusetts is a reminder that Republican Scott P. Brown swept into the Senate three years ago, also in a special election, with an opportunity to break Democrats' hopes of passing the health care law with a filibusterproof majority.

Mr. Obama and his political allies made enough moves to pass the law, anyway.

Yet while its passage still rankles most Republicans, voters in the Bay State have lived with the law's equivalent, "Romneycare," for seven years, said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist in Boston.

"I think the role [health care reform] played in Brown's win was always exaggerated in comparison to other factors in that race," she added.

Fred Bayles, director of Boston University's Statehouse Program, noted the state legislature passed its health care reform law with little fanfare under then-Gov. Mitt Romney in 2006.

"This was supported by Republicans and Democrats in the legislature," he said. "There were no demonstrations."

So, he said, no one should be surprised that Mr. Obama's law is not a key issue ahead of the June 25 showdown between Democratic Rep. Edward J. Markey and Republican Gabriel Gomez, an investor and former Navy SEAL.

Analysts also said fervor over the health care law is a fight best waged in primary elections, in which Democrats compete to explain the law's benefits to their base and Republicans see who can criticize the law the most.

Mr. Markey supported the health care law when it came to the House in 2010. But one of his Democratic challengers, Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, did not, making it a ripe issue ahead of the April 30 primary.

"The only person who seemed to be harmed by anything to do with ACA was Steve Lynch in the primary," Ms. Marsh said. "Lynch constantly had to explain why he didn't support it and didn't vote for it, and that took a toll with Democrats here."

Things are different in South Carolina, a reliably conservative state where former Republican Gov. Mark Sanford is trying to pull off a political comeback after vanishing from his executive post in 2009 to visit a mistress in Argentina.

His high-profile race against Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch — the sister of satirist Stephen Colbert — has centered on fiscal issues and the pseudo-celebrity status of the candidates instead of health policy, said Gibbs Knotts, chairman of the political science department at the College of Charleston.

And yet, Mrs. Colbert Busch has been forced to stake out a careful position on "Obamacare." Given the makeup of the 1st Congressional District, Mrs. Colbert Busch has to account for the pros and cons of the law while playing to fiscal conservatives and those who lean to the left on social issues.

Mr. Knotts said the health care law came up once during the pair's April 29 debate, yet it was a rare departure from incessant talk about the economy.

"They're not going to completely alienate the Democratic base," he said of Mrs. Colbert Busch's campaign.

However, "she's trying to appeal to moderates and Republicans here, and that's been a deliberate strategy on her part."

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