- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2017

House Republicans’ Obamacare replacement bill could claim its first victim Thursday in businessman Greg Gianforte, the GOP’s candidate in a special congressional election in Montana.

Mr. Gianforte says he opposes the bill but defends congressional Republicans for making an effort. His Democratic opponent, Rob Quist, says that’s not good enough, and has urged Montana voters to use the election to send a signal to the Republican Party to lay off the 2010 health care law.

It’s the first election with national implications since the House Republicans passed its health care bill, and the early political returns haven’t been good for them.

Prognosticators say the race has moved from a likely Republican hold to a near toss-up, with Mr. Gianforte only slightly favored in a state President Trump won by 20 percentage points last year.

“What is happening in Washington right now over the last few weeks — including the health care vote — has certainly given Quist a boost,” said Jeremy Johnson, political science professor at Carroll College in Helena, Montana. “It is very difficult to see the magnitude of the boost, but the race is seen as very competitive now in Montana.”

Mr. Gianforte has said he wouldn’t have supported the Republican bill, but The New York Times unearthed an audio recording of him telling lobbyists the day the bill passed that “it sounds like we just passed a health care thing, which I am thankful for — that we are started to repeal and replace” Obamacare.

“Greg Gianforte says he is thankful for the new health care bill, the one that eliminates protections for pre-existing conditions and raises premiums on every Montanan who has one,” Mr. Quist said in a recent television ad. “I think Greg is thankful because he gets another big tax break at our expense.”

Gianforte spokesman Shane Scanlon countered that his boss wants to see a bill that would drive down premiums and preserve coverage for preexisting conditions while maintaining access to plans and doctors in Montana.

“Greg would not have supported the bill in its current form because he did not have those assurances,” Mr. Scanlon said. “Rob Quist wants to double down on Obamacare with a complete government takeover of our health care system, but he won’t tell Montanans how it’s going to work or how we will pay for it. The results would be rationed care, reduced access and higher premiums.”

Republicans in Washington have been struggling to sell their bill to the public. An initial repeal vote was called off after leaders discovered they didn’t have the votes to pass the bill. Feverish negotiations earned them enough support among holdout conservatives to get across the finish line.

Polling suggests, though, that the messy handling actually has made voters view Obamacare more favorably — and Republicans less favorably.

A Morning Consult poll released this week showed that Democrats hold a 45 percent-to-35 percent lead over Republicans when registered voters are asked which party they trust more on health care. Two months ago the GOP held a 43 percent-to-39 percent edge.

The health care issue has immeasurably helped Mr. Quist, whose campaign was stumbling amid a series of controversies, including his personal debts.

In Georgia, where another special congressional election is slated for June 20, Democrat Jon Ossoff has seized on the health care fight to attack GOP candidate Karen Handel, who is unabashedly backing the Republican repeal-and-replace bill.

“Democrats seem to forget that their disastrous Obamacare law is hated by the American people, a point they once again made crystal clear at the ballot box last November,” said Kate Constantini, a Handel campaign spokesman. “House Republicans are fulfilling their promise to the people by repealing and replacing Obamacare, and this new bill is a first step toward that process.”

The Georgia race is considered a toss-up.

Both the Montana and Georgia seats were left empty when their Republican incumbents took jobs in the Trump administration.

In South Carolina, where a special election is set for another empty seat formerly held by a Republican who moved to the White House, Democratic nominee Archie Parnell is trying to use the health care law to attack Republican Ralph Norman, who supports the GOP’s American Health Care Act.

“Ralph supports the work of fellow conservatives to bring a free market approach to lower health care cost,” said Norman spokesman RJ May. “The AHCA is a move in the right direction in keeping the promise to make insurance affordable for middle-class America.”

The South Carolina election is scheduled for June 20, and the seat is considered safely Republican.

In California, where a Democrat gave up his House seat to become state attorney general, two Democrats are in a June 6 runoff — and both are attacking the GOP health bill.

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