Repeal pledge latest Republican litmus test

Top Colorado Republican candidates running for seats in Washington have all pledged to repeal health care reform, even though practical chances of repeal are thin and the bill is growing more popular by the day. Senate candidates Ken Buck, Tom Wiens and Jane Norton have vowed to work to repeal, as has state Rep. Cory Gardner, who is running for Democrat Betsy Markey’s Congressional seat. With the Tea Party activists rallied relentlessly around opposition to the bill over the course of the last 12 months, there is little room to give up the health care fight for candidates on the right in tight races, no matter how impractical.

Clockwise: Buck, Norton, Rubio, Crist

Clockwise: Buck, Norton, Rubio, Crist

Buck and Wiens committed themselves to repeal immediately after the House vote last Sunday. Norton jumped in with a Facebook status update a day later.

Indeed, it’s the same here as it is in Florida, where the national spotlight is trained on the Senate contest pitting Gov. Charlie Crist against Tea Party favorite state Rep. Marco Rubio.

In a 40-minute debate on Fox News Sunday, Rubio and Crist agreed on one thing: They both pledged to repeal the health care bill — at least, to whatever extent they could.

“What we need to do is go ahead and repeal this thing,” said Crist bluntly. “Let’s start over.”

“I think the first step is to repeal it,” said Rubio, “and we need to win a few elections before we can get there.”

Rubio has surged into a lead over Crist by promising to “stand up” to President Obama in a way the governor, who’s built a reputation as a moderate, hasn’t. Since the passage of health care reform, however, Crist has recast himself as a candidate ready to roll back health care reform — he immediately endorsed state Attorney General Bill McCollum’s lawsuit against the individual health insurance mandate. The whole exchange on Sunday revealed something that more Republican candidates are finding out: The GOP base is clamoring for its party to repeal health care reform — indeed, promising anything but full repeal can prompt a mini-revolt — but there’s plenty of wiggle room as to what exactly repeal would mean.

“You’ve got Rubio saying ‘repeal and start over,’” said Michael Connelly, a spokesman for the Club for Growth, the conservative group whose early support for Rubio was a factor in his rise. “You’ve got Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) saying ‘repeal and replace.’ Some kremlinologists will say there’s daylight between those statements, but as far as we’re concerned it doesn’t exist.”

If any organization can nudge Republicans toward a “repeal” pledge, and keep them honest after they take it, it’s the Club for Growth. It launched a one-paragraph “Repeal It” petition in February, when many considered health care reform a dead letter. And since the passage of reform, the number of signatories who hold or are running for electoral office has surged past 400. In addition to the Colorado candidates, that number includes Senate candidates like New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, Kentucky’s Trey Grayson and Illinois’s Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who are warily viewed by Tea Partiers and conservative voters, but who have been able to use the “repeal” message to prove their bona fides.

“It’s going to be repealed and replaced and it’s going to be done soon,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is facing a primary challenge from the right, in a Friday rally with Sarah Palin. “It will not stand.”

Republican members and candidates are reinforced by Republican governors around the country who can complain about “ObamaCare” without tackling it legislatively. All are backed up by a steady stream of polls from Rasmussen Reports and others that seem to validate the wisdom of coming out for repeal.

“Newt Gingrich is saying we should ‘repeal and replace,’” wrote Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) in a weekend op-ed for The Wall Street Journal. “That works.” Jindal dealt with the purported impossibility of electing enough Republicans to repeal the legislation by saying his election in Louisiana had been unlikely, too. And would President Obama veto a repeal bill? “Yes, he sure would. Do it anyway. And do it again after he is gone. (By the way, President Clinton vetoed welfare reform twice before he signed it into law.)”

In the three ongoing special elections where Republicans hope to take seats once held by Democrats, “repeal” has become a rallying cry for local activists and national fundraisers. The next election on the calender will come April 13 in the 19th District of Florida, some of the safest Democratic terrain in the state. The Obama-Biden ticket won 65 percent of the vote there, while Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) won re-election with 66 percent. But Ed Lynch, the businessman running as a Republican to replace Wexler, has taken to the pages of Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government to call his race “the first referendum on nationalized health care.”

“By contributing, 5, 10, or 20 dollars to our campaign,” wrote Lynch, “your donation will count towards a full and unequivocal REPEAL of the most dangerous legislation passed since this nation’s founding.”

In an interview, Lynch made it clear that he backed full repeal, and wouldn’t quibble about parts of the legislation that Republicans have occasionally endorsed, such as preventing coverage from being denied for pre-existing conditions. “This bill is going to kill our seniors,” said Lynch. “Making something less bad doesn’t mean making it good.” He would sign the “Repeal It” pledge, he said, and he’d also co-sponsor legislation Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has introduced to repeal the Patient Protections and Affordable Care Act. “I’m a big supporter of Michele,” he said.

The other candidates who will face voters in the next two months have come around to the same argument. Tim Burns, a first-time candidate running for the seat of the late Rep. John Murtha (R-Pa.), has challenged his Democratic opponent to sign a pledge to repeal health care reform. Charles Djou, a Honolulu city councilman who’s running to replace Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), has threaded the needle a little differently, telling voters that he’d prefer a chance to fix the bill over outright repeal. He explained that he favors that approach because he views repeal as legislatively unlikely.

“Repeal isn’t going to happen unless Republicans capture a two-thirds majority in both chambers to override an Obama veto,” said Djou.

Former congressman Tim Walberg, who’s running for his old House seat in Michigan, said that a “repeal” message would work best if coupled with Republican promises to pass a better sort of health reform.

“I don’t mind the term repeal if that’s what we have to do,” Walberg said. “But I think there are some elements of the health care bill I introduced when I was in Congress that we can go back to. Reform is needed, just not this kind.”

The only political mistake Republicans can make on health care, so far, is to signal to the base that full repeal might not be a priority. Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) created an opening for a minor challenger in his U.S. Senate bid by arguing — accurately — that Barack Obama’s presence in the White House made repeal of health care reform unlikely until at least 2013. That was worrying to some Republicans, whose best-case scenario in 2011 is a Republican Congress that would be unable to override Obama’s vetos.

“I see where Republicans are with this,” said one GOP aide in the House, “but it drives me insane. What happens if you run, win, and don’t repeal?”

But for all the rhetoric, that might be where Republicans are headed. Before the health care vote, on March 9, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told a reporter that Republican voters would understand if the GOP couldn’t repeal health care reform right away. “Whether you want to call it repeal,” he said, “or whether you want to call it a referendum, I don’t think makes a dime’s worth of difference.” After the vote, on March 23, Cornyn appeared to support “non-controversial stuff” in the reform package. The blowback from the conservative base was immediate and immense. If it was a preview of what Republicans can expect before and after the midterms, it didn’t look good for Cornyn.

“Make no mistake about it,” clarified Cornyn. “I fully support repealing this Washington takeover of health care.”

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David Weigel

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