Po­lit­i­cal real­ity set­ting in

The failed re­peal of ACA has left the Repub­li­can ex­posed in Colorado.

The Denver Post - - DENVER & THE WEST - By Mark K. Matthews and John In­gold The Den­ver Post

WASH­ING­TON » U.S. Sen. Cory Gard­ner’s ap­proach last week to the failed re­peal of the Af­ford­able Care Act un­der­scored his dual role as both a mem­ber of Se­nate Repub­li­can lead­er­ship and a politi­cian wor­ried about his own re-elec­tion prospects.

For the past month, the first-term Repub­li­can wouldn’t take a con­crete po­si­tion on any of the GOP plans to undo the 2010 health care law — only to back ev­ery ma­jor Repub­li­can pro­posal last week to come up for a vote, from re­peal-and-re­place to re­peal-and-de­lay.

On one level, it’s not sur­pris­ing: Gard­ner ran for Se­nate in 2014 on a pledge to dis­man­tle the ACA and, as chair of the Na­tional Repub­li­can Se­na­to­rial Com­mit­tee, he’s close to Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mccon­nell and tasked with the re­spon­si­bil­ity of en­sur­ing that his GOP col­leagues — most of whom want to un­wind the ACA — get re-elected in 2018.

“I am com­mit­ted to re­form­ing our na­tion’s bro­ken health care sys­tem, and I’ll con­tinue to work to bring re­lief to Coloradans be­ing hurt by the neg­a­tive im­pacts of Oba­macare,” Gard­ner said af­ter the re­peal ef­fort col­lapsed early Fri­day.

But the way the fight played out — from his own wa­ver­ing to the Se­nate’s rushed, overnight vote — leaves Gard­ner ex­posed back in Colorado, a swing state with an ac­tive con­ser­va­tive base but one where sur­veys have shown a greater de­sire to fix the ACA rather than re­peal it.

Now he’s on the record with sev­eral votes that are cer­tain to be­come fod­der for lib­eral and Demo­cratic ads with no im­me­di­ate re­sults to coun­ter­act them — al­though those same votes could in­su­late him some­what from con­ser­va­tive crit­i­cism.

“(Last) week, af­ter months of duck­ing and dodg­ing the pub­lic on his health care po­si­tion, Cory Gard­ner did ex­actly what we ex­pected — he voted to take health care away from mil­lions to pay for tax cuts for mil­lion­aires,” said Mor­gan Car­roll, chair of the Colorado Demo­cratic Party.

Early in the leg­isla­tive process, Gard­ner raised con­cerns about the speed with which some Repub­li­cans wanted to un­ravel the ACA’S ex­pan­sion of Med­i­caid, which has pro­vided cov­er­age to more than 400,000 Coloradans and dra­mat­i­cally re­duced the num­ber of res­i­dents

with­out health in­sur­ance.

As the de­bate wore on, how­ever, Gard­ner spoke less fre­quently about that worry and later voted for a plan that would sweep away much of the ACA — in­clud­ing the Med­i­caid ex­pan­sion — and give Congress two years to re­place the bulk of Pres­i­dent Barack’s Obama sig­na­ture leg­is­la­tion.

That vote fol­lowed weeks of non­com­mit­tal an­swers from Gard­ner on what he planned to do, even though both Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can op­er­a­tives said they ex­pected that Gard­ner would sup­port what­ever ma­jor piece of leg­is­la­tion GOP lead­ers wanted to pass.

No­tably, he told The Den­ver Post late Thurs­day that he still hadn’t made up his mind on the so-called “skinny re­peal” that Se­nate Repub­li­cans fell short of pass­ing hours later.

“I haven’t even had a chance to read it yet,” Gard­ner said in a brief in­ter­view.

Speak­ing more broadly about the leg­is­la­tion — which was pitched with the goal of ini­ti­at­ing health care ne­go­ti­a­tions with the House — he added: “If this gets us into a process that gets to re­peal and putting in some­thing in place of the Af­ford­able Care Act, then I think a lot of mem­bers, in­clud­ing my­self, have to con­sider it — know­ing that there is a lot of de­bate that we have to go through, a lot of amend­ments that we have to see and this whole thing can change.”

He added: “That’s why I can’t com­mit to any­thing sim­ply be­cause I haven’t seen the fi­nal prod­uct.”

Colorado is di­vided al­most evenly among Democrats, Repub­li­cans and in­de­pen­dents, but there re­cently have been signs of broad sup­port for the ACA.

A late April poll of Colorado vot­ers found that 60 per­cent of them wanted to keep or fix the ACA; a March poll pegged that fig­ure at 54 per­cent.

The sen­ti­ment puts Gard­ner in a bind, as it pits that view — re­in­forced by protests from an en­er­gized left — against a Repub­li­can base that wants him to keep his prom­ise of re­peal­ing Oba­macare.

“Ev­ery par­ti­san of­fice­holder faces some kind of del­i­cate bal­ance,” said Seth Mas­ket, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Den­ver. Yet Gard­ner, be­cause of how nar­rowly he won his 2014 race in a year that fa­vored Repub­li­can can­di­dates, could have it even tougher, he added.

To stay in of­fice, Gard­ner needs to ap­peal to Colorado cen­trists — es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing he would share the 2020 bal­lot with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who lost Colorado to Hil­lary Clin­ton.

On the other hand, Repub­li­can vot­ers may pun­ish Gard­ner if he doesn’t hew to con­ser­va­tive prin­ci­ples. He also faces the prospect of deal­ing with GOP vot­ers frus­trated with the re­sults from Wash­ing­ton.

“We have elected a group of in­di­vid­u­als who don’t have the ca­pa­bil­i­ties to man­age or run a Dairy Queen, let alone guide, ad­vise and run the world’s largest cap­i­tal­is­tic so­ci­ety and busi­ness,” wrote Robert Blaha, who served as chair­man of Trump’s Colorado cam­paign.

Blaha didn’t tar­get Gard­ner specif­i­cally but took is­sue with the whole of the Repub­li­can-con­trolled Congress.

“When con­fronted with tough re­al­i­ties (like hav­ing to make de­ci­sions about health care), they stick their fin­ger in the wind hop­ing the breeze is not too in­tense,” he wrote. “Spine­less whin­ers, they quiver at the thought of hav­ing to make a de­ci­sion and stand for what they so boldly pounded their chests about.”

Of the two groups, Mas­ket said party ac­tivists have longer mem­o­ries than gen­eral-elec­tion vot­ers.

“If Gard­ner were to turn against his party’s health re­form ef­fort, they will re­mem­ber that in three years,” he said of the GOP base.

Be­cause of this dy­namic, Mas­ket said, re­search has shown that when sen­a­tors buck their party, they are much more likely to do so in the year in which they are up for re-elec­tion.

“Gard­ner, in gen­eral, is just try­ing to thread a nee­dle right now,” Mas­ket said. “He knows he’s go­ing to make some peo­ple an­gry.”

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