Supreme Court health care ruling provides fodder for California congressional races

06/30/2012 12:00 AM

04/23/2013 10:24 AM

In a cable TV ad scheduled to start airing Tuesday in California, a woman exchanges text messages with her sister, both disapproving of the federal health care overhaul.

Rep. John Garamendi "wants to keep the whole %^#* thing," one of them writes.

"Can we repeal Garamendi????" asks the woman. Her sister replies: "November 6th :)"

The ads, paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee and prepared within a day of the Supreme Court's health care ruling, are the first evidence of a campaign to capitalize on the decision in competitive congressional races in California.

Though the advertising buy is relatively modest – $43,000 for ads attacking Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, and Reps. Jerry McNerney and Lois Capps, according to the RNCC – it highlights a belief among Republicans that the court's upholding of the health care law could arouse conservatives who fiercely protested its passage in 2010.

"It puts the future of this policy back in the realm of the Congress, making the elections much more relevant," said Rob Stutzman, consultant to Rep. Dan Lungren in his re-election campaign against Elk Grove Democrat Ami Bera in east Sacramento County. "It was a debate two years ago, and now it's queued up to be a debate again."

For Republicans, the message is simple: If you want to repeal the health care law, elect Mitt Romney president and put more Republicans in Congress.

Four months before Election Day, however, the prospect of health care as a sustaining issue in the campaign remains unclear, particularly in California. President Barack Obama's signature legislation is more popular in Democrat-heavy California than elsewhere in the country. Likely voters here support the measure 49 percent to 44 percent, according to the most recent Public Policy Institute of California poll.

"On health care reform and on climate change, I think that we're a little bit different than the rest of the nation," poll director Mark Baldassare said, "because we went through a period in the last decade with a Republican governor and a Democratic Legislature in which there was some consensus around expanding health coverage, moving forward with climate change."

In some of the state's more conservative reaches, particularly in the Central Valley and parts of Southern California, opposition to the health care law remains significant. In those areas, observers say, Republicans can use the Supreme Court ruling to raise money and encourage voter turnout.

"Republicans know they can turn out their base by talking about the Obama health care tax," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "Democrats know they can turn out their strongest supporters by reminding them why they supported Obama in the first place."

In fact, both Romney and Obama turned to fundraising within hours of the court's ruling Thursday. The Romney campaign said it raised $4.6 million in the first 24 hours, while in a fundraising appeal on the Democratic side, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said Romney's promise to repeal the law is "just another reminder of how much is at stake in November."

In California, Garamendi campaign manager Maureen Erwin doesn't suspect advertising around the health care ruling will significantly change voter opinions about the law or about her candidate, who supports it.

"I guess on both sides it might get supporters of either side more excited, but I don't see a big impact, really," Erwin said. "I think the people who were against it from the beginning will continue to be, and I think the supporters will continue to support it."

The Bera-Lungren race is one of several competitive contests at the heart of Democrats' bid to regain control of the House of Representatives. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee attacked Lungren in an email Thursday, claiming he "works for insurance companies," while Lungren, a proponent of repealing the law, said in a prepared statement that it was an illegitimate tax.

Still, the issue is unlikely to surpass unemployment or the housing crisis on voters' minds, analysts say.

"For the swing voters," Schnur said, "it's still all about the economy."

Next week, when the National Republican Congressional Committee starts airing its health care ads in California, supporters of the law will be on TV, too.

The California Endowment, a health care foundation, is launching a series of ads promoting the law. They feature TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz.

Daniel Zingale, a foundation senior vice president who described himself Friday as "still in the glow" of the high court's decision, said Oz was chosen in part because he isn't known for his politics.

"We try to avoid the hyperbole on both sides," Zingale said.

Still, Oz's feelings about the law should be clear to anyone watching.

"I went into medicine to help people live longer, healthier lives," Oz says, adding that "the new health care law has so much in it that could help Californians get better and more affordable health care."

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