The push to defund President Obama’s health care law is becoming a litmus test for GOP midterm primaries, where insurgent candidates are using the issue to bash incumbent Republicans balking at being forced to choose between funding the law or shutting down the government.
In Kentucky, businessman challenger Matt Bevin said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to embrace the “defund Obamacare” strategy shows he is out of step with the state’s Republican voters. In South Carolina, Nancy Mace, a small-business owner who just this weekend announced her Senate campaign, said incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham should be punished for his failure to take on the Obamacare battle.
“We are trying to defund Obamacare,” Mrs. Mace said Monday during an appearance on WTMA-AM news talk radio in Charleston. “Whether you are Republican or a Democrat, nobody wants to implement it, and there are some folks up in Washington who are looking at the effort to defund Obamacare, our conservative leaders who are trying to do that, and Sen. Graham called that a ‘bridge too far.’”
A breakaway group of conservative Republicans — led by Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida — are pressing lawmakers to sign a pledge to block funding for the Affordable Care Act in this fall’s looming budget battles — even if the push results in a shutdown of the government reminiscent of the 1995 standoff between President Clinton and congressional Republicans.
Critics of the strategy, including many veteran Republicans on Capitol Hill, warn that the fight will be futile on policy and counterproductive on politics. They say Republicans are likely to be portrayed as obstructionists and be blamed if a shutdown materializes.
But the campaign challengers say the primaries will give the party’s most committed supporters a chance to send reinforcements to the insurgent Republicans.
“This race is about Washington and sending someone there who is principled and who will not waver once they get there,” Mrs. Mace said. “It is about reining in the power in Washington as well, and it’s about getting someone who is going to join Sen. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, because that is the direction of the Republican Party.”
Mr. Bevin drove home a similar message over the weekend at the 133rd Fancy Farm picnic in Kentucky. He told the crowd that Mr. McConnell, who has delivered a number of speeches critical of the health care law, hasn’t backed up his remarks with any tangible victories to stop Obamacare.
“Stop talking about yanking it out root and branch, and start voting in the U.S. Senate to kill it by defunding it,” Mr. Bevin said. “Stand with Sen. Mike Lee! Be a man! Stand up, and put your money where your mouth is.”
The McConnell camp brushes off the charge and is portraying his challenger as a tax cheat.
“When Mitch began leading the fight against Obamacare in 2009, Matt Bevin was busy dodging his taxes,” said Jesse Benton, the McConnell campaign spokesman. “No one has fought Obamacare longer or harder than Mitch McConnell.”
Still, Republican strategists say Mr. Bevin and Mrs. Mace are smart to use this line of attack because it resonates with the base of the party and primary voters who are not interested in hearing drawn-out explanations from the incumbents about why the strategy isn’t sound. It also gives Mr. Bevin and Mrs. Mace a way to tie the incumbents to the status quo in Washington.
Taking a stand
The Republican-controlled House has voted to repeal all or parts of the Affordable Care Act more than 40 times, but none of the measures stood a chance of becoming law. The sense of urgency within the Republican ranks has increased as the Obama administration prepares to enroll Americans in state-by-state insurance markets Oct. 1, which also marks the beginning of the fiscal year.
The issue is tying the party in knots. Some Republicans warn that the party will pay a price in the 2014 elections if they use the power of the purse to force a government shutdown. Others, though, warn that they must draw a line in the sand during the spending debates this fall.
Perhaps nowhere are the political crosswinds more evident than in Kentucky, where Mr. Paul is backing Mr. McConnell’s campaign, although the incumbent — like Mr. Graham — has refused to sign on to the Senate conservatives’ pledge to oppose any funding to implement or enforce Obamacare.
Mr. Graham has said he wants to replace Obamacare but that he would not support a government shutdown because that would freeze Social Security payments and funding for the FBI and the military.
Mr. McConnell also is under fire from ForAmerica, a nonprofit conservative group led by Brent Bozell that is running an ad titled “Who Are the Biggest Chickens in Washington?”
The ad says Mr. McConnell has promised to fight to repeal Obamacare but loses his nerve when handed the chance to turn off the funding.
“Sen. McConnell, conservatives don’t need a chicken when it comes to Obamacare,” the narrator says in the ad. “Leaders lead, but if you fund it, you own it.”
The effort also is causing friction between Republicans on the state and national level.
The New York Times reported Monday that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a likely 2016 presidential candidate, and some of the other governors at a National Governors Association meeting over the weekend in Milwaukee, warned against a spending showdown that could starve their states of money in the event of a shutdown.
“I have made the case that Obamacare is not good for the economy, but I have some real concerns about potentially doing something that would have a negative impact on the economy just for the short term — I think there are other ways to pursue this,” Mr. Walker told the paper.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who also is thought to be eying a White House bid, said he supports the defunding push.