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Running on OCare: the Landrieu Test Case

Testing conventional wisdom at the ballot box is often tougher than it looks, and that’s likely to be the case in this year’s congressional midterms, when Democrats either run on or away from ObamaCare. It was widely assumed that Democrats would run away from the unpopular mess of arbitrarily applied regulations, and that it would be a millstone around the necks of Democrats across the country, especially those who voted for it.

Mary Landrieu, however, would appear to be bucking that trend. The Louisiana Democratic senator is, on paper, a perfect candidate to test ObamaCare’s drag on congressional Democrats. Not only did she vote for it, but as a senator her vote took the bill farther than an individual vote in the House, where the bill had a larger margin for error than in the Senate. On top of that, Landrieu was one of the last to throw her support behind the law, magnifying her apparent impact. And if that weren’t enough, there’s the reason she voted for it: the so-called Louisiana purchase, which appeared to put an official price on her vote.

Landrieu, then, can’t exactly avoid her support for it, especially in a year when Republicans won’t let the law’s congressional enablers off the hook. So Landrieu is doing something that should make Democrats pleased, for a few counterintuitive reasons: she’s running on ObamaCare:

Senator Mary Landrieu is one of the most vulnerable of red state Democratic incumbents, and her reelection challenges — like those of other red state Dems — are said to be all about Obamacare.

But in an interview today, Landrieu vowed to campaign aggressively against GOP foe Bill Cassidy’s opposition to the Medicaid expansion in the state, offered a spirited defense of the law — while acknowledging it has some problems — and even insisted he’d be at a “disadvantage” over the issue. …

Landrieu has been a vocal proponent of a “keep and fix” message on Obamacare. But Republicans have argued Dems aren’t actually offering any fixes. Landrieu noted she’s advocating for making the provision of coverage voluntary for businesses with fewer than 100 employees and adding a more affordable “copper” plan. She reiterated her support for the law’s goals — and said Cassidy’s embrace of repeal would be politically problematic for him.

“It’s a solid law that needs improvement,” Landrieu said. “My opponent offers nothing but repeal, repeal, and repeal. And even with all the law’s setbacks, we’re seeing benefits for thousands of people in Louisiana.”

Democrats are probably cheering this decision. Since Landrieu can’t escape her support of the law, she’s going to at least be a loud voice proclaiming the benefits of ObamaCare. If she loses anyway, she’d have infused the debate with pro-ObamaCare talking points that other Democratic candidates, who would rather pretend not to have heard of ObamaCare, would be too timid to use but whose voters might hear them from Landrieu.

Additionally, Landrieu has a lead in the polls. It’s not enough, as it stands, for her to avoid a run-off, but it gives her an early boost. If Landrieu runs on ObamaCare and wins, Democrats will have avoided a major pitfall both in trying to keep the Senate and in pushing back on the narrative that ObamaCare is, broadly, a political loser. Beyond that, Democrats have some reason to be confident: as Jonathan detailed earlier this month, Landrieu is using her access to federal funds to lavish benefits on key voting demographics, which gets her extra votes and prevents local Republican officials in those districts from organizing opposition to her candidacy.

And that aspect of the race is also a good reminder of the difficulty of grading individual state-level elections on national issues. Republicans, however, won’t have much room to back out of their insistence on ObamaCare’s potency if Landrieu wins. Democrats will (accurately) assert that Republicans were the ones who wanted that particular fight, and they’ll be able to argue she ran on ObamaCare and won. If she loses, Republicans will have that argument in their corner, having thus defined the race.

But Democrats will certainly be paying close attention, because Landrieu is setting out the model on how to run on ObamaCare: “Will I defend the good parts of the Affordable Care Act? Yes. Will I urge improvements to parts that can be fixed? Absolutely.” If Democrats can notch a win ostensibly on ObamaCare in what many expect to have been the toughest year for the law since the 2010 midterms, they’ll almost surely export that strategy to future elections. But if it turns out voters merely liked their recently granted federal goodies more than they hated ObamaCare, the unpopular reform law will continue to follow them around election after election, when the goodies stop coming but the bills for their constituents’ insurance premiums don’t.

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