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Obamacare Fallout Hits Senate Democrats, But Not Equally

Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
J. Scott Applewhite
Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.

The Republicans have dubbed them the "Obamacare Dozen," the 12 Democratic senators up for re-election in 2014, all of whom voted for the president's health care and insurance overhaul law.

In GOP world, each one of those senators managed to provide the "deciding vote" for the Affordable Care Act.

And each one, in the wake of the law's online rollout debacle, is in a "panic" — the GOP buzzword of the week — over its political implications.

That panic narrative is not baseless. It's undoubtedly playing out for already vulnerable red state incumbents like Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Mark Begich in Alaska, who face an even steeper climb as antipathy toward the 2010 health care law grows with each stumble.

But what about Democratic senators like Kay Hagan in North Carolina, who just months ago was looking at a tough, but winnable campaign for a second term?

Or Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, a former governor whose strong summer poll numbers prompted this local news headline: "Can Anyone Beat Shaheen in 2014?"

New Hampshire Uncertainty

Panic may be too strong a word for Shaheen's state of mind. Indeed, that would probably be one of the last words anyone who knows the methodical, risk-averse politician would use to describe her, or her Obamacare strategy. That doesn't mean Shaheen hasn't moved to mitigate fallout.

"The health care law has never been popular in the state, but in the last month, Shaheen has been able to pivot very well," says political reporter and analyst James Pindell of New Hampshire's WMUR-TV.

Shaheen has said she'll propose legislation to extend the health insurance sign-up period, given the problems with online registration. It's an effort not supported by the White House, and one deemed unworkable by architects of the law.

But, Pindell says, it gives the appearance that there's distance between her, Obama and Senate Democratic leaders.

"Instead of having this thing around her neck," Pindell says, "in a classic Shaheen way, she's saying, 'I'm not changing my position, but I want to be more reasonable about this.' "

Former state Republican Chairman Fergus Cullen allows that Shaheen has "a bit more room to maneuver" than Pryor or Begich. He insists, however, that she is "as vulnerable as any other member who voted for Obamacare in the first place.

"Jeanne Shaheen is someone who has always put complete confidence in the government," Cullen says. "This has to give everyone pause."

But testing that vulnerability requires a viable opposing candidate, which Republicans haven't had since former Rep. Charlie Bass took a pass at running.

The two announced candidates are largely unknown statewide and poorly financed: a social conservative who drew 10 percent in a state GOP gubernatorial primary in 2010, and a former state senator whose pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage, and pro-carbon-tax positions don't line up with the party's base.

That's why national Republicans have been urging former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who in 2012 lost a re-election bid to Democrat Elizabeth Warren, to come north to the Granite State and run.

Brown, who has a New Hampshire vacation home, has been an increasingly familiar figure in the state. But he's been making scattershot appearances — and if he has a strategy for running, no one can figure out what it is, Cullen says.

Strategy or no, he's "the only option" for Republicans, Pindell says. "When Charlie Bass decided he was not going to run, Scott Brown stopped being a sideshow and became the last great hope of New Hampshire Republicans to beat Jeanne Shaheen."

Brown has until June to decide whether to run, so it could be months before Shaheen, who raised and spent more than $8.3 million in her 2008 win over Republican John E. Sununu, can truly test the political fallout from Obamacare.

North Carolina Free Fall?

It looks increasingly like Kay Hagan won't have to wait that long.

A Public Policy Polling survey released this week showed Hagan's lead over a handful of potential Republican challengers disintegrating over the past several weeks.

The survey, which found that 69 percent of North Carolina voters say the Obamacare rollout hasn't been successful, had Hagan essentially in a dead heat with state House Speaker Thom Tillis and Rand Paul-endorsed Greg Brannon, a doctor. She's also running barely ahead of the Rev. Mark Harris and Heather Grant, a nurse.

In his analysis, Tom Jensen at PPP said that "early attack ads on Kay Hagan and the unpopular fallout of Obamacare" have taken a toll on her poll numbers.

Her approval rating among voters has remained consistent, Jensen said, but her disapproval rating has spiked from 39 percent to 49 percent since September — tracking closely with President Obama's numbers.

Hagan and Pryor, Begich and Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana have all endorsed Shaheen's bid to extend the enrollment deadline. And Hagan has taken a page from that playbook. This week she said she's seeking an independent study of what went wrong with the launch of the federal health care website.

"I'm leading a letter calling for a full investigation into the contracting process surrounding," she told reporters Tuesday. "Taxpayers are owed a full and a transparent accounting of how the vendors [who were] contracted to build this site failed to launch this site successfully."

Kenneth Fernandez, poll director at North Carolina's Elon University, says that Hagan still enjoys the advantages of incumbency and money — for now.

"This is a purple state, and whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, there is going to be a lot of outside money coming in," says Fernandez, who adds he believes that Tillis will emerge the GOP nominee.

The Obamacare issue will hurt Hagan, Fernandez says, but it's worth noting that her Republican counterpart in the Senate, Richard Burr, has seen his numbers worsen along with hers as the public sours on Congress in general and on Republicans, too.

Fernandez says he'll have new Elon poll results late next week.

North Carolina Democratic strategist Gary Pearce, writing Wednesday on the blog Talking About Politics, repeated a warning that politicians who try to hedge their bets are rarely successful. He offered this advice to Hagan:

"Remain calm. Step away from the ledge. Repeat after me: 'This website mess needs to be fixed. But we'd also better fix our health care mess. If we don't, it will bankrupt our nation and every family in it. What's the Republicans' plan?' "

The hardest thing to do in politics, Pearce says, is to underreact.

Meanwhile, political analyst Charlie Cook has kept Hagan's race rated as " leans Democrat," with Shaheen's as still a "likely Democrat" win.

For now.

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Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.