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Tea party vs. the ACA: 2014 race takes shape

By Taylor Batten
Editorial Page Editor
Taylor Batten
Taylor Batten is The Observer's editorial page editor.

What’s a bigger political loser: Obamacare or the tea party? We in North Carolina are about to find out.

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan surfed Barack Obama’s popularity into office in 2008, but six years later she might be sucked out on a riptide of his unpopularity – or at least his health care law’s unpopularity.

With Obama floundering and his approval ratings plummeting over Obamacare’s rollout, Hagan finds herself among a handful of vulnerable Democratic senators facing reelection who are being dragged down with him.

Republicans last week circulated videos in which Hagan made the same now-discredited promise Obama did. “I think the key here is, if you’ve got health insurance in our country, you keep it,” Hagan tells a crowd in one of the videos. “Whatever we do, I don’t want to dismantle any system where people are happy with the coverage that they have. Actually, a lot of people are happy and so I think we’ve got to be sure that that stays in place.”

The conservative group Americans for Prosperity is spending $1.7 million on TV ads in North Carolina hitting Hagan for her vote for Obamacare. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank eviscerated the senator last week after she hemmed and hawed her way through a conference call she arranged to talk about problems with the law’s rollout.

Voters are dropping their support for Hagan like a health insurer dropping a bad risk. A new survey from Public Policy Polling in Raleigh shows Hagan in a dead heat with every potential Republican opponent, including ones most voters have never heard of. The percentage of respondents who disapprove of Hagan’s performance has jumped from 39 percent to 49 percent since September.

Nearly 70 percent said the Obamacare rollout has been unsuccessful, which explains why Hagan works so hard to distance herself from it. In one press release last week, she said Obama’s move to let people keep their plans for an additional year does not go far enough. She added: “I will continue to hold the Administration and insurance companies accountable.”

Obama on Thursday tried to protect Hagan and other Democrats on the 2014 ballot. “They were making representations based on what I told them and what this White House and our administrative staff told them, and so it’s not on them, it’s on us,” he said.

But ignorance of the law is no excuse, as they say, especially when you’re the one voting for the law.

This all marks a sudden turnaround for Hagan, who until now has enjoyed a double-digit lead over her potential Republican opponents. She built that in part on the backs of an unpopular Republican legislature led by one of her challengers, Speaker Thom Tillis.

And that’s where the tea party comes in. Election Day is almost a year away, an eternity. Obamacare might or might not be repaired by then, but Hagan will be using her $6 million (and growing) war chest to remind voters of their distaste for Tillis’ General Assembly and Republicans in Congress.

Virginia’s elections this month could be instructive. Virginia, like North Carolina, is a “purple” state. Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a flawed candidate, won the governor’s race there because his Republican opponent, Ken Cuccinelli, was seen as too far right.

Last month, Republican Senate candidates Tillis, Greg Brannon and Mark Harris all adopted the tea party stance of opposing the deal that ended the government shutdown and averted a default on America’s debt.

If N.C. Republicans nominate a tea party candidate, or if Hagan can portray Tillis as one, next fall’s campaign becomes a death match pitting Obamacare versus the tea party. Darth Vader versus Voldemort in the minds of most voters.

Reach me at tbatten@charlotteobserver.com; on Twitter: @tbatten1.

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