WASHINGTON — Omahans might wonder what congressional candidate Pete Festersen thinks about the new health care law's stumbling, bumbling start.
They should check back in 2014.
The Omaha city councilman, a Democrat running against eight-term incumbent Republican Lee Terry, turned down a World-Herald request Tuesday to discuss implementation of the new law.
Campaign spokeswoman Tess Fogarty said Festersen would not discuss “congressional issues” until after he formally announces his candidacy — an announcement that most likely won't come until sometime after the holidays.
Festersen isn't the only Democratic congressional candidate turning down opportunities to talk health care.
The Hill newspaper recently contacted 31 Democratic candidates about the health care implementation and reported that fewer than a third responded with a comment.
Included on the publication's “no comment” list were Festersen and Staci Appel, who is running against Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa.
The National Republican Congressional Committee seized on that report to paint Democrats as running away from the health care law.
One reason Democrats might be so shy about discussing the law is that it has taken a beating in the polls. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found opposition to the health care law among Americans at 57 percent — a record high. The same poll found “almost four in 10 Americans say they are more likely to oppose a politician who backs the legislation, while just over a fifth say they would be more likely to support such a politician,” according to the newspaper.
Festersen jumped into the race against Terry after Republicans took their own public opinion beating last month for their insistence on rolling back the law and the ensuing government shutdown.
Terry, in particular, was stung by a colorful declaration that he would keep his salary during the shutdown, in part because he had a “nice house.”
Terry later apologized for the comment and agreed to have his salary withheld, but the damage was done.
With the government reopened, however, attention has turned to the health care law and the glitch-plagued website — HealthCare.gov — where people are supposed to buy private insurance plans. There also have been horror stories about canceled policies and rising premiums.
Many Democrats have stood by the law, saying it just needs time to work. But with Democrats feeling pressure, President Barack Obama announced last week that insurance companies would be allowed to keep offering old plans for the time being.
When the House voted last week on a Republican proposal to grandfather in old insurance plans, 39 Democrats defected to support it, including two Iowans, Reps. Bruce Braley and Dave Loebsack.
Braley, who is running for Iowa's open U.S. Senate seat next year, said in a statement after the vote that the health care initiative is the law of the land and has to work — and that Iowans cannot go back to the flawed system that existed before the health care law was passed.
“That's why I'm committed to fixing the problems with the Affordable Care Act's rollout and improving the law,” Braley said last week. “President Obama promised that Americans could keep their health insurance if they liked it, and Iowans think that promise should be honored. That's why I supported today's bill.”
Unlike Braley, Democratic challengers like Festersen currently don't have to cast votes in Congress on the health care law. But that doesn't mean they're immune from the political ramifications of the law's continuing woes.
Republicans are targeting the health care law as a key issue for the 2014 election and will emphasize their opposition. Terry, for example, can point to a string of votes against its passage and for its repeal. And he penned an opinion piece published in Tuesday's World-Herald in which he touted his vote last week to let people buy existing health policies that do not meet the law's new requirements.
Meeting with a group of reporters on Tuesday, Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, conceded that the health care law's stumbles have not been great for his party. But he described the problem as a “temporary tactical challenge.”
In comparison, he said, October's government shutdown and the ongoing budget fights constitute a “long-term strategic crisis” for Republicans.
Israel said the DCCC is encouraging Democratic candidates to make the case that they will be problem-solvers who want to fix and improve the health care law. He said voters favor that approach over the GOP focus on repealing the law altogether.
Israel predicted that ongoing budget fights will allow Democrats to contrast their priorities with those of Republicans, particularly on funding for Medicare, which he said Republicans will be looking to cut.
It makes sense that Democrats would like to shift the topic away from health care at the moment, said Randy Adkins, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
But he also cautioned that the future is difficult to predict.
“I think overall it benefits Republicans, but it's one of those things that ... this thing may be fixed in three months and everybody's signed up and the Democrats will be turning around claiming what a great success it was,” he said. “At this point, I think it's really sort of unknown, which is why I think it's smart for all the Democrats to just stay away from it.”
A candidate like Festersen would see little benefit if he were to plunge into the debate at this stage, Adkins said.
“The best thing that Festersen could do at this moment would be to either: a) say nothing or b) come out in criticism of the president, which he doesn't want to do because then that's not going to help his donor base,” he said.