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Why Democrats Now See Health Care As A Winning Political Issue


Today on the Senate floor, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer made a promise.


CHUCK SCHUMER: We Democrats are going to spend the next few months, including the August work period, focusing on the nation's health care system.

CORNISH: That's a big shift from the last few elections where health care was just about the last thing Democrats wanted to talk about. With the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare increasingly popular and with Republicans in control of the federal government, Democrats now see health care as a winning issue. NPR congressional correspondent Scott Detrow has more.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: At event after event in Missouri, Senator Claire McCaskill is talking about health care.


CLAIRE MCCASKILL: You're going to hear me talk about it nonstop. It is outrageous the stress people feel right now about climbing health care costs.

DETROW: Go to the Democrats' official YouTube page and nearly every single video focuses on the topic.


MCCASKILL: Hospitals, especially rural hospitals, are under stress.

In the meantime, we're going to find out how broad the problem is.

DETROW: McCaskill is a Democrat up for re-election in a state President Trump won by nearly 20 points. The fact she sees health care as a winning political issue shows just how much has changed since the last time she ran in 2012. Back then, Republicans slammed Obamacare for driving up costs and just about everything else.


MCCASKILL: Everything that was bad about health care was all the fault of Obamacare, which of course wasn't true. But it was powerful politically.

DETROW: Powerful enough that Republicans won the House, then the Senate a few years later. But now Obamacare is much more popular.

GUY CECIL: One of the most important parts of the repeal attempts by Republicans is that it actually crystallized for voters what's at stake.

DETROW: That's Guy Cecil, who runs the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA. Polls show that the more Republicans pushed to repeal the landmark health care law, the more voters realized they liked many of its protections. Their main repeal effort failed, and those protections are still in place. But a big part of Democratic campaigns this year is the warning that Republicans still want to repeal Obamacare.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Coming after your health care, increasing your out-of-pocket costs, a devastating age tax if you're 50 or older.

DETROW: That's an ad being run in key swing districts by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. There's another big political shift from the years Democrats ran away from health care on the campaign trail. Now Republicans have all the power. Drew Altman is the president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

DREW ALTMAN: They're the government. And they own it. And they're responsible for the problems with the law, whatever they are.

DETROW: The same goes for every other health care problem, particularly rising premiums and drug costs. If Democrats aren't in control, they don't really share the blame. Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen is heading Democratic campaign efforts this year. He sees health care as a winning issue for McCaskill and the nine other Democrats running for re-election in states Trump carried.

CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Health care costs remain one of the very top issues in every state in the country. And when you look at that issue, the most recent polling that I've seen on that, which was a CNN poll a few months ago, shows a 20-point advantage for Democrats.

DETROW: And experts are predicting another big increase in premiums this fall for Obamacare plans. Previous hikes hurt Democrats when Obama was in the White House. Now the party sees them as hurting Trump and Republicans. So in a year where voters seem increasingly satisfied with the economy and the direction of the country, expect McCaskill and other Democrats on the defensive in states won by Trump to keep talking about one area where people aren't happy. Here's Chuck Schumer.


SCHUMER: We're going to focus on all that our Republican friends have done to drive up the costs of health care to average Americans and what we should be doing to reverse that awful trend.

DETROW: It still might take some adjustment, though, for Democratic campaign managers who spent years steering their candidates away from the issue. Guy Cecil coordinated Democratic Senate campaigns in 2012 and 2014. Asked how he would have reacted back then when told health care would be a centerpiece of 2018 Democratic campaigns, Cecil said...

CECIL: I would be pretty surprised (laughter).

DETROW: Then again, there's a lot else about 2018 that would have surprised Democrats if you told them a few years ago. Scott Detrow, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.