Even before the inauspicious launch of the Affordable Care Act, it’s been consensus wisdom among Red America’s chattering class that ambitious Democratic pols should distance themselves—far, far away—from the unpopular President’s eponymous health reform initiative.
But while Obamacare remains out of favor here in the Commonwealth—49 percent of Kentuckians in a February poll called for its repeal—the state’s implementation of the law has proven an unqualified success. Since its celebrated, glitch-free introduction, Governor Steve Beshear’s KYnect program has secured health coverage for more than 400,000 Kentuckians, representing nearly 10 percent of our state’s entire population. The stats pose a striking, shining irony here at Ground Zero of Rand Paul’s Tea Party and the home of the president’s leading antagonist, Senator Mitch McConnell—and it’s no wonder why the Obamas feted the Beshears both at the State of the Union and at a recent state dinner honoring French President Francois Hollande.
But even as Obamacare found its sea legs nationally and boasted solid first enrollment numbers in recent weeks, it still came as a surprise to local political watchers when a Kentucky Democratic congressional candidate picked up the ACA baton and used it to bash the GOP incumbent that she is challenging. Elisabeth Jensen, the presumptive favorite to take on Lexington Congressman Andy Barr this November, emerged last week as the first federal candidate in the region—and one of only a few in the entire country—to broadcast a campaign ad championing health care reform, and attacking her opponent for voting more than a dozen times to repeal it.
In a 60-second radio commercial (listen to it here), Jensen wisely avoids engaging in an ideological or partisan debate that would be counterproductive in a conservative congressional district whose average performance leans GOP by nine percent. Instead, Jensen stokes the state’s predilection as a bastion of anti-Washington ire—which has intensified as Congressional ratings dip below those of cockroaches and traffic jams—by identifying herself only with KYnect (not Obamacare or ACA) and the governor behind it (Beshear owns a stellar 54 percent approval rating), and by tying Barr to D.C. institution McConnell, who’s even less popular in the Bluegrass State than…yikes…Barack Obama. She also effectively plays the anti-politician card: “I often say Kentucky moms like me get more done by noon than Congress gets done in a week.”
Most significantly, though, Jensen’s ad offers a roadmap for similarly situated Southern Democrats who find themselves in the crosshairs of the GOP’s unrelenting anti-Obamacare barrage. Jensen instructs listeners that the repeal strategy would “let insurance companies drop coverage, deny care and charge women more…[and] cancel insurance policies of 400,000 Kentuckians.”
Anxious Democrats have longed for the opportunity to declare a tipping point in the Obamacare debate, when voters would finally recognize that the Republican repeal-obsession would pose significant harm to the millions of Americans who’ve already received coverage under ACA. While that day has yet to arrive, Jensen’s ad may be the first shot in a revitalized battle to seize back the political initiative, to use the health care rhetorical weaponry against the very Republicans who have so far wielded it to their advantage.
To date, McConnell’s own Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes, has toed the safer, more common Democratic line, offering to “fix” Obamacare, instead of defending it. And there’s no doubt that as national Democrats’ brightest hope at picking up a Republican Senate seat—and even better yet, retiring the polarizing McConnell—Grimes would be foolish to fully embrace the unpopular president and his signature law. But as Al Cross, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, posits, Grimes might find traction with Jensen’s careful Kentucky-centric language, charging McConnell with voting to eliminate a successful Kentucky program, “because it attacks Washington figures on humanitarian grounds.”
Jensen is in a different political place than Grimes, and her more aggressive stance may indeed be a savvy strategic gambit. Barr’s poll numbers are soft, but he’s only vulnerable to defeat by a first-time candidate if Jensen can marshal the resources necessary to define herself and defend against the inevitable negative ad barrage of Barr’s well-funded campaign. By showing the chutzpah to be an early adopter of a pro-ACA message, Jensen can distinguish herself within the national Democratic donor base that’s desperately trying to identify viable progressive candidates to diminish the GOP House majority.
To Jensen, however, the decision to be bold was much more personal. The mother of a 10-year-old boy diagnosed with autism, Jensen shares that “the stress on a family dealing with these kinds of health issues is overwhelming,” and that she believes it is high time for Democrats to stand strong as champions for affordable health care, whatever the political impact. “After listening to so many success stories across the district, I understand the importance of KYNect to our people’s welfare…and I’m not afraid to lean into it.”
We’ll soon learn whether other red state Democrats will lean in as well. But Jensen’s willingness to approach this political third rail certainly sends a powerful message to the body politic: While the tide is still a ways from turning, Obamacare’s successes in Kentucky and nationally have substantively transformed the political discussion, making it politically viable, finally, for some politicians to embrace reform, albeit carefully and strategically. And if Elisabeth Jensen’s moxie empowers a few more Democrats to shift from defense to offense on health care, the GOP might actually have to find an issue other than Obamacare to run on in 2014.