(Clarifies Shea-Porter position by adding full quote and
criticism in paragraphs 26-27)
By Susan Cornwell
SOMERSWORTH, New Hampshire May 11 Barack Obama
and his Democratic allies in the U.S. Congress have grown more
confident in recent months about their ability to use the
president's signature healthcare law as a draw rather than a
liability in this November's midterm elections.
Three races in New Hampshire illustrate the challenge,
offering a test of whether Democrats can overcome voter
skepticism about the 2010 Affordable Care Act. The law, aiming
to expand health insurance coverage to millions more Americans,
has come under sustained attack from Republicans.
The president has urged Democrats campaigning in the Nov. 4
congressional elections not to run away from "Obamacare", but
instead to "forcefully defend" it. Obama has said that a surge
in enrollment shows the system is running smoothly now, after
its disastrous debut last October.
New Hampshire, which is closely divided between Democrats
and Republicans, is one of about 10 states where Republicans
hope to make gains in order to pick up six seats they need to
put the Democratic-led Senate under their control.
Senators Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Kay Hagan of North
Carolina and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana have been among the
Democratic targets of anti-Obamacare ads by conservative groups
such as Americans for Prosperity.
Republicans are counting on voter antipathy toward Obamacare
to try to take charge of the Senate and expand their majority in
the House of Representatives. But while Obamacare may now be
working better, national polls clearly show more people
disapprove than approve of the law.
HOPING FAMILIARITY BREEDS SUPPORT
In New Hampshire, Shaheen and Representative Carol
Shea-Porter, a fellow Democrat, were among the earliest
advocates of the healthcare law. The state's other Democratic
Representative, Ann Kuster, was elected after the law passed,
but also backs it.
Shaheen said in an interview she shared Obama's view that as
Americans get to know Obamacare, they are embracing it. Shaheen
said there was "a lot of misinformation" about the law. "The
reality is, it's beginning to work for people," she said.
But 51 percent of New Hampshire adults oppose Obamacare
while just 37 percent support it, the University of New
Hampshire Survey Center reported last month in a WMUR-Granite
State poll. Sixty-one percent of the state's voters think
medical costs will increase under the act.
"The perception is, 'it will hurt my family and costs will
go up'," said Andrew Smith, director of the center. "In a
political campaign, that is a big boulder to push uphill."
Skeptics include people like Derek Gagnon, a 33-year-old
auto mechanic who says he would not even consider voting for
anyone who had backed the Affordable Care Act.
He has no health insurance, but he also says he has no
intention of signing up for the private insurance offered
through the government-run website, HealthCare.gov.
"I shouldn't be forced to do something like that in a free
country," said Gagnon, referring to the law's requirement, known
as the "individual mandate," that almost all legal U.S.
residents buy health insurance or pay a fine.
"I'll pay the fine this year and next year," Gagnon said at
a frozen yogurt store outside New Hampshire's state capital,
Concord. "Maybe I won't have to pay it the third year, because
by then Obama will be out of office."
Gagnon's distaste for the individual mandate dovetails with
a principal line of conservative attacks nationally on the law.
Obamacare is meant to extend subsidized health coverage to
millions of uninsured Americans through new online private
insurance markets and an expansion of the Medicaid program for
the poor. But conservative critics portray it as a government
intrusion in a major sector of the economy that will hurt job
growth and erode freedoms.
Shaheen's leading Republican opponent in the Senate race,
Scott Brown, is betting that theme will resonate in New
Hampshire, where the state's famous motto is "Live Free or Die."
In April, Brown kicked off his candidacy with the
declaration that New Hampshire could "Live Free or Log On" - a
caustic reference to signing up online for Obamacare.
Lately, he has been traveling the state on an "Obamacare
Isn't Working" tour. Brown, a former senator from neighboring
Massachusetts, says the act should be completely repealed and
the issue of healthcare reform should be left to the states.
Brown has been rising in the polls against Shaheen. But she
was ahead 45 to 39 percent in a recent WMUR-Granite State poll.
MORE THAN HEALTHCARE AT STAKE
Dean Spiliotes, a New Hampshire political analyst, said
Shaheen, a former New Hampshire governor, still had political
capital in the state, and he doubted the healthcare issue alone
could defeat her.
"People view her as not an ideologue. That has helped her
with voters," said Spiliotes, a political science professor at
Southern New Hampshire University. "If Obamacare rises to the
level of taking out Jeanne Shaheen, there is something larger
To be sure, Obamacare faces unique challenges in New
Hampshire. Just one insurance company in the small state offered
insurance policies through the program this year, and the
insurer doesn't cover healthcare in 10 of the state's 26
hospitals, deficits Shaheen and Shea-Porter have been working to
Spiliotes said New Hampshire Democrats are defending
Obamacare "but they are kind of doing it in fits and starts.
It's not a uniform, rah-rah kind of support."
In one hopeful sign for Democrats, enrollment in Obamacare
in the state of 1.3 million people has reached 40,000 - double
the number that had been expected.
Shea-Porter, a former social worker who came to Congress in
2006 campaigning on healthcare reform, said she would never run
away from healthcare reform, even though she has been critical
of its implementation.
"In my mind, this was a great joy and a triumph to be able
to vote for healthcare for millions of Americans who had none,"
she said. "I am always going to support it."
That said, she understands the political perils for
Democrats of Obamacare. She lost her seat in Congress in 2010
elections after her vote for the law, only to be re-elected in
2012. Her 2014 race is considered a toss-up although her
Republican opponent has yet to be chosen in a September primary.
Shea-Porter, who met last week with recent healthcare
enrollees in Somersworth, said she is aware of the qualms some
people have, including wariness of providing personal
information on a government website.
But she said the best way to advertise Obamacare's benefits
is to publicize the stories of people who signed up and
discovered that "nothing terrible happened."
Patrice Glynn, 54-year-old New Hampshire resident, is
already convinced. Glynn, a diabetic, lived without health
insurance for nine months after she lost her job and before she
signed up on HealthCare.gov. "If it was so bad, would 40,000
people be on it?" she asked.
(Editing by Caren Bohan and Frances Kerry)