Running Against Obamacare in Massachusetts? Uh, Sure

When you take partisan dogma too seriously, you’re bound to make dumb mistakes like this

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Massachusetts is hard territory for Republicans. The state hasn’t had a GOP congressman since the mid–1990s, and its last Republican governor was Mitt Romney, in 2002. In the 2012 presidential election, it gave 61 percent of its votes to Barack Obama, and in the Senate contest, gave 54 percent of its votes to Elizabeth Warren.

It’s because of this that, if you were a Republican running for office in the state, you would do well to avoid conservative dogma. It just doesn’t make sense in a place where voters don’t have a reflexive distrust of government.

For whatever reason, this seems to have escaped the latest crop of Republicans running for office in the state, who—like their colleagues nationwide—have hitched their electoral wagon to an anti-Obamacare message. Here’s POLITICO with more:

“No other state has suffered more from Obamacare than Massachusetts,” said Republican Richard Tisei, who’s running a rematch this year against Democratic Rep. John Tierney in perhaps the state’s most competitive House race. He’s making the president’s health law the centerpiece of his campaign and says the first bill he would file in Congress would exempt the state from Obamacare. […]

Charlie Baker, the GOP front-runner in the race to succeed Gov. Deval Patrick, who chose not to seek another term, says he would also seek an exemption from Obamacare.

“There are a lot of people in Massachusetts who are being negatively impacted by something that hasn’t really moved the ball here for people at all,” said Baker, a former health insurance executive who lost to Patrick in 2010. “Massachusetts led the country on health reform. I would like to see us get back into a leadership position.”

A few things. First, it’s ludicrous to try to run an anti-Obamacare campaign in the state which pioneered the law’s approach. Voters might be unhappy with the turbulence that comes with the law’s implementation, but that’s different from wanting an exemption or seeking an end to the law itself.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much polling on Obamacare attitudes in Massachusetts. Late last September, Public Policy Polling asked voters it they supported shutting down the government if Obamacare isn’t funded, which can be treated as a proxy for attitudes about the law. Only 31 percent were in favor—57 percent were opposed.

Given the extent to which the law is (mostly) working as advertised, and the media is no longer focused on its most glaring failures, my guess is that Obamacare isn’t a salient issue for most voters in the state, and insofar that it is, it scores modest support. In other words, if you’re a Republican, there’s nothing to gain from running against it.

This gets to a broader problem in GOP politics—there just isn’t any room for ideological flexibility in elections. For the most part, Democrats in red states are free to take the stances necessary to win: Neither Kay Hagan in North Carolina nor Mark Begich in Alaska are expected to hold to every ounce of Democratic orthodoxy. The same goes for challengers, like Samantha Nunn in Georgia or Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky.

This doesn’t seem to be as true in Republican politics, where candidates in blue states aren’t willing—or able—to take positions against the GOP mainstream, even if it would still leave them to the right of their Democratic opponent. I don’t know if this comes from fear—generated by the Tea Party and other conservative groups—or conviction. What I do know, however, is that it’s an awful strategy for winning elections.