Premium increases new line of attack for GOP candidates

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican Senate candidates are jumping on news of sharply rising premiums under President Barack Obama’s health care law as they seek advantage in the closing days of the election.

The unpopular law already was an issue in some key Senate races, a recurring attack line for GOP candidates and in some cases another way to tie Democrats to Hillary Clinton.

The latest rate hike news is “an exclamation point on the argument we’ve been making,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a group backed by the conservative billionaire Koch Brothers which has been working on Senate races around the country. “Right now Republicans are really excited to talk about Obamacare and the problems and failings and how it’s hurting people. Democrats do not want to talk about it because they know they’re losing with the American people.”

In Arizona, Sen. John McCain has been running ads lashing Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick for saying she was proud of her vote for the health law. In Indiana, where the parties are fiercely contesting an open seat, GOP Rep. Todd Young repeatedly turned the focus back to “Obamacare” in a debate last week against former Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh.

And in Wisconsin, where former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold also is trying to get his old job back, GOP Sen. Ron Johnson has been airing an ad featuring voters complaining about the law, and Feingold’s vote for it. “Thank you Russ Feingold … for nothing!” one woman says.

The rate hike news this week provides additional ammunition. Before taxpayer-provided subsidies, premiums for a midlevel benchmark plan will increase an average of 25 percent across the 39 states served by the federally run online market, according to the administration. About 1 in 5 consumers will have plans only from a single insurer to pick from.

The new premiums vary significantly from state to state, but a couple states hosting competitive Senate races, including Pennsylvania and North Carolina, are looking at increases above 40 percent.

For Republicans, it’s a rare piece of good news as they try to hang onto a slim 54-46 Senate majority in an unfavorable environment, sharing a ticket with an erratic presidential nominee, Donald Trump, who’s been sliding in the polls. Several GOP candidates leapt at the rate hike news to lob new attacks, including Sens. Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire and Roy Blunt in Missouri, while others signaled plans to use the news against their Democratic opponents in the final days of the campaign.

“It will be a significant part of the closing argument these next two weeks,” said Jay Kenworthy, spokesman for Young, the Republican candidate in Indiana.  The news also broke just as final debates were being held in several states, putting Democratic candidates on the defensive in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire already this week.

But Democrats argued that voters already know that Republicans oppose the health care law and Democrats support it, and contend that opinions are too established for another round of negative headlines to make much difference. Democratic campaign operatives sought to turn the argument against the GOP.

“Republicans would rather repeal ‘Obamacare,’ leaving their constituents with no options and at the mercy of insurance companies,” said Sadie Weiner, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Those are tough positions to have to answer for so close to the election.”

The health law’s prominence in some Senate campaigns has been notable given that it passed six years ago. But the steady drip of bad news about premiums and choices has kept it in the headlines, and it’s never stopped being a rallying issue for the GOP base.