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Trump, GOP rediscover familiar campaign foe: Obamacare

Two weeks before Election Day, Obamacare is back big time.

Republicans capitalized on the Affordable Care Act’s unpopularity in 2010 and 2014 to retake both houses of Congress. But until now, the issue hadn’t ignited in a presidential campaign season dominated by the outsized personality of the GOP presidential nominee who has focused on trade, terrorism and ad hominem attacks.

But the White House’s announcement Monday that premiums for key Obamacare plans will rise by 25 percent on average next year has catapulted the law back into the limelight, and Republicans are piling on — grateful for a unifying issue in a rollercoaster campaign cycle that has featured Republicans at war with themselves and a free-falling top of the ticket. From Donald Trump to House Speaker Paul Ryan to struggling Senate candidates, GOP leaders are teeing off on the eye-popping premium increases.

“Obamacare is just blowing up,” Trump proclaimed Tuesday — a message he repeated at rallies and in interviews all day long.

Republican Kelly Ayotte, who is in one of the most competitive Senate races this cycle, released a new ad Tuesday attacking her Democratic opponent Maggie Hassan for supporting a law “that is hurting New Hampshire families.”

Spiking premiums aren’t exactly an October surprise, and their impact this election cycle is hardly a foregone conclusion. News about larger premium increases for 2017 has been dribbling out for months, ahead of the start of the law’s fourth enrollment season that begins Nov. 1. And most Americans will be unaffected by the big rate increases: less than 10 percent of Americans purchase coverage through the individual market, and millions of people receive Obamacare subsidies to lower their monthly premiums.

But the increases crystallize Obamacare as an issue in a way that could resonate with voters still unhappy and confused by the federal health care law six years after passage. Recent polling shows that the American public remains divided over the law even though it has brought the country’s uninsured rate to the lowest level ever recorded.

“Obamacare has gone from more of a theoretical debate to an issue that is directly impacting a lot of American’s wallets and access to health care,” said Brian Walsh, a GOP strategist with Rokk Solutions.

Democrats haven’t helped their cause in recent weeks. Former President Bill Clinton created a furor when he referred to Obamacare as the “craziest thing in the world.” And Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton complained earlier this month that the Affordable Care Act is “no longer affordable” for an increasing number of his constituents. Obama tried to stop the bleeding with a speech last week praising the law for lowering the uninsured rate and providing millions of people with key protections when they purchase health insurance.

“Obamacare is still a very potent, very effective message,” said GOP pollster Neil Newhouse. “This is only going to make that message more effective as we go into the last two weeks.”

Still, Democratic pollster Margie Omero doesn’t believe the bad Obamacare news will have much effect on the larger campaign narrative.

“In a normal year, potentially this could be damaging for Democrats,” said Omero, executive vice president of public affairs at Penn Schoen Berland. “Right now, you have so much focus on Trump. Trump’s inability to stay disciplined really affects the entire political climate. … It seems like this is going to have a hard time breaking through.”

Indeed, during an impromptu campaign event at his Miami golf resort, Trump muddled an attack on the law. He initially said “all of my employees are having a tremendous problem with Obamacare,” before contradicting himself by saying his workers don’t have to deal with the law’s exchanges because his company provides health insurance. Employer-provided healthcare is wholly separate from Obamacare insurance, which is designed to offer coverage to Americans who do not get insurance from their job job or other government programs like Medicare.

Hillary Clinton has openly acknowledged the law’s affordability issues, but ridiculed Republicans for not offering any credible alternatives. Clinton has proposed a series of changes aimed primarily at reducing costs for Obamacare customers.

“The choice in the election is are you going to repeal the Affordable Care Act, kick 20 million people off of insurance, go back to putting the health insurers in control of whether or not pre-existing conditions are covered, or are you going to improve upon it,” campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri told reporters Tuesday.

As in past years, the amount that individuals will actually pay for health insurance will vary greatly across the country. Some swing states with close contests that could determine control of the Senate are seeing enormous average rate hikes, according to federal data, while others’ price increases barely register.

For example, a 27-year-old Arizonan will see average plan premiums go from $196 this year to $422 next year before subsidies — a 116 percent spike. In Pennsylvania, the average price for a 27-year-old will rise by 53 percent, from $213 to $327. But others are seeing miniscule increases. In Ohio and New Hampshire, the bump is only 2 percent in each state. Indiana will see a decline of 3 percent — from $235 to $229 per month.

“It’s bad news for the Democrats but I’m not sure many campaigns have the bandwidth to burn it in,” GOP strategist Brad Todd said.

Some, though, are trying. Increasingly, independent expenditure groups are increasingly turning to Obamacare attacks to put Democrats on the defensive. The National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund — two of the biggest GOP-aligned spenders — have launched Obamacare ads in Iowa, Michigan, Arizona, Minnesota and Virginia in recent days.

In Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, freshman GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock faces a tough reelection fight in a wealthy swing district where Trump is particularly toxic. Her campaign plans to put Democratic challenger LuAnn Bennett on the defensive over Obamacare in the closing days of the campaign.

“It will be a clear issue in our race because our clueless opponent bizarrely declared at a debate earlier this month that ‘the Affordable Care Act has made healthcare more affordable,’” said Comstock’s campaign manager, Susan Falconer, in a statement to POLITICO. “The audience laughed, but these 25 percent rate hikes are no laughing matter for our hard working families.”

Newhouse argues that Obamacare’s struggles can be an effective issue for Republicans to seize on to create a contrast with their Democratic opponents. That can potentially turn the narrative away from Trump, where Democrats would like to keep it through Election Day.

“It helps make the race a choice rather than a referendum,” Newhouse said.

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