Senate Hopefuls Have Big Sales Job on Health Vote

Posted March 22, 2010 at 6:36pm

For a trio of House Members in competitive Senate races this fall, Sunday’s passage of health care reform may end up being a watershed moment in their campaigns, as all three cast votes that run counter to the traditional political leanings of their home states.

Between now and November the health care vote is likely to factor prominently into the races being run by Reps. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.), Mike Castle (R-Del.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).

Ellsworth was one of 12 Members who aligned with Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) last November on ensuring the legislation had certain restrictions on federal funding for abortions. But in the months since the initial vote, Ellsworth launched a Senate campaign, and last week he announced he was voting for the final passage of the bill without the same abortion-related language.

“I was sent here to look at all sides of the argument in a thoughtful manner and I knew that the status quo was no longer acceptable,” Ellsworth said in a statement about his vote. “I needed to answer only one question when deciding whether to support this reform: will this bill benefit Hoosiers? Put simply, in my core I know it does.”

Now that Ellsworth is running statewide, he will face a much broader electorate than the one in his conservative southern Indiana district that elected him to two terms by large margins. President Barack Obama barely carried Indiana in 2008, and the state historically elects conservative Democrats, such as retiring Sen. Evan Bayh.

Former Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), Ellsworth’s likely general election opponent, was already hitting the Congressman on Monday for his vote on the bill — but stopped short of accusing Ellsworth of no longer being against abortion rights.

“That’s not up for me to decide,” Coats said. “I think it will be quite hard for him to make the case to pro-life groups in Indiana that he is completely with them on their agenda in terms of how they measure that.”

Chris Sautter, a Democratic consultant from Indiana, pointed out that Ellsworth’s vote could actually help him win more support from the state’s Democratic base — which could provide a key boost in a lower-turnout midterm election.

However, the same reasoning could apply to the two Republicans running in traditionally Democratic states. Kirk is running against state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias in Illinois, Obama’s home state. Castle is also running in a heavily Democratic state, which Obama carried with 62 percent.

“It’s a problem for them,” Sautter added. “It really depends on the nature of the district and the state. And those states that are overwhelming for Obama and those states that are overwhelmingly pro-choice, like Illinois … that’s something that [Kirk] is going to have difficultly explaining in suburban Chicago.”

Kirk went even further than some candidates who opposed the bill and told supporters that he would lead the charge to repeal the health care bill if it passed, according to an audio recording of a March 12 Chicago area event obtained by the Chicago Tribune. Giannoulias’ campaign sent around the tape recording in an e-mail and accused the Congressman of “barely contain[ing] his giddiness at the idea of defeating President Obama and obstructing health care reform.”

The vote will also likely be a wedge issue in Senate races in Florida and Missouri, where Reps. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) are on the opposite side of the issue compared with their respective opponents.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee is gearing up to hit Ellsworth, Meek and Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) for their votes for the bill in their respective Senate races.

“Democrat candidates like Brad Ellsworth, Paul Hodes and Kendrick Meek who are vying for a promotion from the House to the Senate will be forced to account for their decision to put [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi and President Obama’s interests before voters in their state every day from now until November,” NRSC Press Secretary Amber Marchand said.

For the Democrats who voted “yes” on the bill, the plan is simple: Keep touting the benefits of the legislation, and the process story will be in the past by November. Meanwhile, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will hit the Members and candidates who voted against the bill for being aligned with health insurance companies.

Two other House Democrats running for Senate, Hodes and Charlie Melancon (La.), took two very different approaches to the health care bill — both of which were more closely tailored to the demographics of their states. Melancon, a conservative Democrat from a strongly Republican state, voted against the bill both times. Hodes, who hails from a state where Democrats have seen rapid growth in recent years, has been an outspoken and steadfast supporter of the legislation. Both Senate races are expected to be competitive.

John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster who works for both candidates, noted that Melancon’s opponents attempted to tie him to the bill even though he voted against it.

Hodes recently campaigned with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D), an outspoken supporter of health care reform.

“Hodes has been very aggressive on framing the health care fight,” Anzalone continued. “And I think that he is really a good example on how you should message on it. He has not tried to cower away.”