Conservative groups pouring millions of dollars into ad war against Obamacare

Wed Oct 30, 2013 7:05pm EDT

* Groups spend millions to attack healthcare law

* Among the ads' targets: Incumbent Democrats

* Obama-aligned group pushes back

By Gabriel Debenedetti

WASHINGTON, Oct 30 (Reuters) - Buoyed by the troubled rollout of President Barack Obama's healthcare law, conservative groups are pouring millions of dollars into advertising campaigns that portray Obamacare as a disaster and target several Democratic senators who have supported the law.

The advertising push - further boosted this week by reports that the Affordable Care Act could force millions of Americans to change policies, counter to promises by Obama's administration - represent a continuation of conservatives' efforts to weaken support for the law.

Turning back Obamacare is a top priority for many conservatives, and was at the root of a legislative standoff this month that led to a partial shutdown of the U.S. government and a near-default on the government's debt.

The latest wave of anti-Obamacare ads includes a Halloween-themed video with scenes from horror movies and a headline: "What Do You Fear?"

The spot, put out by Heritage Action for America, shows clips of conservative lawmakers and news commentators criticizing the healthcare law and its rollout, which has been plagued by a balky website, HealthCare.gov, that has stymied enrollment in its insurance programs. In a ghoulish, echoing voice, a narrator asks, "What if your worst fears were real?"

Other conservative groups, such as Americans for Prosperity (AFP), are running ads targeting Senate Democrats who have backed Obamacare, are from largely conservative states and are up for re-election in November 2014.

"The ads are laser-beam focused on Obamacare," said Tim Phillips, president of AFP, which on Tuesday announced it would spend $2.1 million for three weeks of television ads against Senators Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Democrats up for re-election in conservative states in 2014.

The Landrieu ad focuses on her support for the law before pivoting to its messy rollout and some Americans' frustrations and fears over health insurance. It also claims that Obamacare is raising costs on employers, forcing them to cut back some employees' work hours.

"Our goal is very simple: Make sure that, first, the issue of Obamacare remains front and center moving forward for the long term," Phillips said. "And secondly, we want to hold those senators accountable for being decisive on Obamacare."

In a statement, Landrieu's office called the AFP ad's claim that Obamacare was "reducing full-time employment" a "ridiculous claim that has been repeatedly debunked as false."

AFP also spent $1.1 million on network and cable television advertisements targeting lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representative last week, Phillips told Reuters.

DEFENDING OBAMACARE

Conservative groups have led the advertising war over Obamacare, but Democrats have entered the fray with ads that have promoted the program, which seeks to help cover millions of uninsured or underinsured Americans.

Organizing for Action (OFA), the nonprofit that grew out of Obama's re-election campaign, pledged on Monday to "spend the next five months making sure people have the facts" about the healthcare law.

OFA is not required to disclose its spending but it does so each quarter. It is not yet clear how much it will spend, if anything, on Obamacare-related ads.

Last week, OFA put out a web video of Obama asking volunteers to help promote the law into 2014. Some Democrats' priorities may be elsewhere, however: Even as the healthcare debate has heated up again, OFA has been mobilizing its supporters to push Congress to pass an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has planned to spend more than $40 million to promote participation in Obamacare this year.

That includes at least $12 million for air time this fall to run ads focusing on Texas, Florida, Arizona and several other states whose Republican governors have not supported Obamacare, and in some cases have discouraged enrollment in the healthcare program.

A RANGE OF TACTICS

Meanwhile, conservative groups are vowing to keep pounding on Obamacare.

Besides TV ads aimed at Hagan and Landrieu, AFP is planning events in the Democratic senators' states, along with a social media campaign. AFP was founded by Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who have become a prominent force in conservative politics.

Two of AFP's ads target House Democrats - Arizona's Ron Barber and California's Scott Peters - while another pair of ads thanked Republican Representatives Steve Southerland of Florida and Mike Coffman of Colorado for their efforts against Obamacare.

"The goal there is to let these guys know that if they vote the right way on economic freedom issues, that we've got their back. That means significant ads" and grassroots campaigning, Phillips said.

The Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF) - a group founded by former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, a leader in the conservative Tea party movement - said on Monday that it has spent $3 million on advertising against Obamacare.

SCF also has endorsed candidates such as Matt Bevin, the Tea Party-backed Republican challenging the Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. McConnell drew the SCF's ire for brokering a deal to end the recent government shutdown, and in the process end the effort by conservatives to extract concessions on Obamacare from Democrats.

Other conservative groups have used different tactics to try to undermine Obamacare.

Generation Opportunity, which has received money from the Koch brothers, has promoted web videos encouraging young Americans not to join the insurance exchanges set up by Obamacare.

The group's first video, featuring what it calls "Creepy Uncle Sam," depicts a man in an Uncle Sam mask as a gynecologist for a scared college-aged woman, suggesting that some patients would not be able to pick their own doctors under the program. The group's three videos have been viewed millions of times on YouTube since their debut last month.

Generation Opportunity President Evan Feinberg said the videos were part of a $750,000 campaign against the healthcare law that may continue in the coming weeks. (Editing by David Lindsey and Lisa Shumaker)