Here’s Why Obamacare Will Help Democrats and Hurt Republicans

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) talks with Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear on Dec. 5, 2013 in Washington, DC Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A number of smart liberals have been arguing lately that, despite the unexpected recovery and success of Obamacare’s enrollment numbers, Democrats shouldn’t count on the Affordable Care Act to provide a big boost for them come Election Day. As Bloomberg View’s Jonathan Bernstein pointed out, most people are optimists who don’t expect to lose their jobs and find themselves in need of the law’s guarantee of access to affordable insurance, so they probably don’t value it much (yet).

Others have noted that many of the people who interact positively with Obamacare will never recognize it as such because they’ll have gotten their insurance through a state exchange, which will be called something different—in Kentucky, to cite one successful example, it’s called Kynect. Polls routinely show that these state plans are more popular than “Obamacare,” even though they’re the same thing.

So these liberal writers are probably correct that, as a straightforward proposition, campaigning on the success of “Obamacare” isn’t going to produce a surge of support for Democratic candidates.

But I think the health-care law will still prove to be a net plus for Democrats in many races—a few this fall, and many more in future elections. The reason why is easier to understand if you flip the issue around and look at it from the Republican side. Conservative orthodoxy still holds that Obamacare is a socialist abomination, and this requires Republican candidates to continue to advocate its repeal. It’s true that the law’s repeal is a strong motivator for Republican voters, and that does carry electoral advantages. But in practice, repealing Obamacare would entail dissolving popular state plans such as Kynect. Voters are bound to notice and make the connection.

Kentucky’s Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, on Tuesday declared the law an “indisputable success” and said 413,000 Kentuckians had gained private or Medicaid coverage through Kynect. As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent notes, Beshear has a 56-29 approval rating. But Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican running for reelection, remains wedded to the notion of repeal. Now, Democrats in the state are going after him for wanting to abolish not Obamacare, but Kynect.

Another Republican potentially imperiled by the law is Tom Cotton from Arkansas, who’s running for U.S. Senate. Cotton has been outspoken about his opposition to Obamacare. But he’s also twisted himself into a pretzel to avoid saying whether he would repeal his state’s Medicaid expansion, enacted under the law, and rob tens of thousands of state residents of their health insurance. Via the Arkansas Times, here’s a flyer Arkansas Democrats are sending around:

Cotton has been viewed as likely to defeat the incumbent Democratic senator, Mark Pryor. But a recent New York Times/Kaiser Family Foundation poll shows Pryor with a 10-point lead. Even if that poll is an outlier, the race is close enough that Cotton obviously feels it would be politically detrimental to openly advocate the rollback of the Obamacare Medicaid expansion. If Democrats can convince voters that he will repeal it, Cotton’s position could potentially cost him the race.

In this way, the politics of Obamacare look like they’re shaping up to someday mirror those of Medicare. Notionally, most Republicans want to cut Medicare. Some, including Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, even put those cuts on paper. But when Ryan joined Mitt Romney’s ticket, he flip-flopped from endorsing Medicare cuts to attacking Obama for the Medicare provider cuts enshrined in the health-care law. The lesson: It’s politically damaging for a national Republican to campaign on cutting Medicare, and they know it.

The jury’s still out on whether campaigning for Obamacare repeal will harm Republicans—it sure didn’t help Romney. But one way or another, it’s easy to believe Obamacare will help the Democrats.

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