Midterm bout: Obamacare vs. Tea Party

| Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013, 9:30 p.m.

Two emerging voting blocs could shape congressional elections in 2014: those who consider Tea Party members extremists and obstructionists, and those who point to the ills of Obamacare and its bungled beginning as proof that it's time for change.

Experts say the midterms could give President Obama control in the final two years of his presidency, or cause him to compromise his agenda by working with a Republican majority.

Democrats warn about the “dangers” of a Tea Party-controlled Congress. Republicans argue the perils of overreaching government programs such as the Affordable Care Act. The feelings run deep, say two strategists on opposing sides.

“For the last two elections, we've told voters how bad Obamacare was gonna be, and voters just had to take our word for it,” said Brad Todd, a Republican media consultant with OnMessage Inc. in Alexandria, Va. “But in 2014, we know how bad Obamacare is. Running against a concrete disaster is a heckuva lot easier than running against a theoretical disaster.”

John Lapp, a Democratic consultant with Ralston Lapp Media in Washington, said Democrats will talk about getting things done because the Tea Party blocks progress.

“I think you're going to see Democrats saying loud and clear that they are the ones focused on the middle class, with an agenda to grow our economy,” Lapp said.

Clashing agendas

Lapp and Todd, who shaped messages for their parties' respective big wins in 2006 and 2010, are known for edgy advertising.

They'll compete in tough races again. Democrats must rally a net gain of 17 seats to win control of the lower chamber of Congress; Republicans need six seats to regain control of the Senate.

“The two parties have their positions, Tea Party versus Obamacare, but the critical issue is that one is more recent than the other,” said David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University in South Carolina who suggests that disgust with Obamacare might trump the 2010 rise of the Tea Party, when people were upset with government bailouts, because the health insurance issue is newer.

“We don't know what effect Obamacare will have, but if polls today are accurate, it is going to be a heavy burden of Democrats to carry in 2014,” Woodard said.

Robert Mozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., thinks the Democratic message will depend on what emerges from arguments over Obamacare: “If, as they claim, Americans will eventually warm up to the program and want to preserve it, then the political debates will be very different.”

Mozell also will watch for any impact of the ideological struggle between fiscal and social conservatives in the Republican Party.

All Americans, said Lapp, “are fed up with Washington gridlock and dysfunction.” He blames the Tea Party's willingness “to take us to the brink of economic default, in the name of a dangerous and reckless agenda.”

But most voters trust Republicans to stop government programs, Todd said: “With Obamacare, you have a poorly run program that needs to be stopped.”

The ‘6-year itch'

With the exception of Bill Clinton in 1998, second-term presidents since the end of the Civil War have weathered their party's loss of House and Senate seats.

By that time, said Woodard, many voters are fatigued by a president's rhetoric, image and familiarity.

“All second-term presidents face the six-year itch,” he said.

Another factor that may hurt Democrats' chances next year is that the problematic government-run insurance website is only one of several recent lurches for the White House.

Critics accuse the National Security Agency, Justice Department and Internal Revenue Service of abusing their power. Some say Obama mishandled the response to Syria's civil war. And drone strikes in Pakistan, which Obama defended as a way to target al-Qaida militants, caused tension between Washington and Islamabad.

Yet Republicans face problems that have cost them public trust: rifts within the party; a tarnished brand from obstructionism; a bitter fight over budget and debt that led to October's temporary government shutdown.

Freefall in polls

Voter discontent shows. In late October, after the shutdown but before the full impact of Obamacare, a poll found Democrats held a 50 percent to 42 percent advantage over Tea Party Republicans in a generic ballot that CNN/ORC International put to registered voters. A month later, the CNN/ORC poll found Republicans had a 49 percent to 47 percent edge.

Obama's popularity hit a historic low during the health care law's rollout and the revelation that he wrongly told people they could keep insurance policies they liked; companies canceled policies that did not meet more stringent coverage standards.

Last week, a RealClearPolitics polling average showed Obama with a 39.9 percent approval rating. Unless he reverses that, “the 2014 midterms could end up worse than usual for his party,” Mozell said.

Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at szito@tribweb.com.

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