Mitch McConnell's big ObamaCare conundrum

The Senate minority leader faces a tough re-election fight — and the health-care law might make it harder

Mitch McConnell
(Image credit: (Alex Wong/Getty Images))

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hates ObamaCare, which isn't too surprising, given that he's an elected Republican politician. And considering the health-care law's miserable rollout and the Obama administration's painfully laborious attempts to patch up the problems, unapologetic opposition to the Affordable Care Act would seem to be a political no-brainer in the run-up to McConnell's 2014 re-election bid.

Yet Kentucky may be one of the few places where support for ObamaCare is actually a winning argument come next year.

The state's exchange marketplace has been one of ObamaCare's early bright spots. And continued success, coupled with a turnaround for the law at the federal level, could make ObamaCare relatively popular there over the coming months.

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That would put McConnell, facing challengers on both his right and left, in a tricky bind.

Before ObamaCare, 640,000 Kentucky residents — or one-sixth of the state's population — didn't have health insurance. So Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear made it his biggest priority to ensure the law was in place and working properly.

"My state needs ObamaCare," he wrote in a New York Times op-ed. "Now."

The early results have been quite positive.

Despite its relatively small population, the Bluegrass State has enrolled more people in new health plans than almost any other in the nation, primarily because Kentucky is one of the 14 states that built its own health exchange marketplace. The state-run marketplaces have proven far more effective than the feds' mothership, with roughly three-quarters of all October ObamaCare enrollees signing up via state exchanges.

Kentucky also accepted the federal government's expansion of Medicaid under ObamaCare, and nearly 40,000 residents have already taken advantage of their new eligibility to sign up for it. And with a November surge, Kentucky is already beating its estimated enrollment pace, according to the Los Angeles Times.

At the national level, too, there is reason to believe ObamaCare could be in for a big turnaround.

The federal exchange marketplace is finally starting to gain steam after a dismal first month, and the Obama administration has said it will have fully operational for the "vast majority" of Americans by the end of the month. Even if the administration misses that deadline, there is still plenty of time for people to sign up for insurance before the individual mandate's penalty kicks in next April.

"Most people don't sign up for something until the deadline," Jonathan Miller, a Democratic former Kentucky state treasurer, told Newsweek. "If that is true in Kentucky, then the positive success the program's been having is only the tip of the iceberg."

McConnell has blasted ObamaCare in the past month as "beyond repair," saying that "anything short of full repeal leaves us with this monstrosity." If ObamaCare continues to improve, though, that talking point "will dry up," wrote Salon's Brian Beutler, and McConnell's job will "come into exquisite tension with his responsibility to his own constituents."

Beshear declared in a joint Washingotn Post op-ed this week that ObamaCare was already working in Kentucky. Even if McConnell were to concede some ground to that argument — though there's little reason to believe he would — he could only do so at the risk of handing more ammunition to his GOP primary challenger, Matt Bevin, and all the conservative groups attacking him as a "turncoat" and Obama sympathizer.

Polls have already shown McConnell in a dead heat with the presumed Democrat in the race, state Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, and found that a majority of voters disapprove of his job performance. If he holds the anti-ObamaCare line, he may have to find other ways to link Grimes to Obama himself, who lost Kentucky in 2012 by an abysmal 23 points.

ObamaCare will factor heavily into the 2014 midterms, but in Kentucky, it may not be a four-letter word.

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