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Will Obamacare Play Big In 2014? Keep An Eye On N.H. Senate Race

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., on Capitol Hill earlier this year.
J. Scott Applewhite
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., on Capitol Hill earlier this year.

With a new White House push to promote the Affordable Care Act well underway, the question is whether an improved HealthCare.gov site and onslaught of positive talking points will be enough to bolster Senate Democrats facing tough races in 2014.

One re-election fight to watch is Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's in New Hampshire, where she's been taking heat for supporting the new health care law.

Step inside a small diner called Chez Vachon in a working-class section of Manchester, N.H., and you'd never guess the White House is actually regaining its footing on the health care rollout. The president is reporting promising enrollment numbers and a faster website, but John Hill couldn't care less. He says the price of his insurance has skyrocketed.

"We asked why the price of the insurance was so high," says Hill. "They said, 'Well, the new Obamacare law. That's the reason why.' "

That law had some pretty severe repercussions in New Hampshire. A strong Tea Party faction in the state legislature voted down a state health insurance exchange, so everyone in the state applying for insurance under the Affordable Care Act has to sign up on the federal government website.

But that federal exchange has drawn only one insurance provider for New Hampshire: Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield. And Anthem shut out 10 of the state's 26 hospitals from its health plans on the exchange, which means traveling in a car for an hour or more for many people in northern New Hampshire who need to see a doctor.

Hill says he's absolutely not voting for Shaheen next year.

"She voted for this. She knew what she was getting into," says Hill. "Now she realizes, 'Oh, this is a big mistake.' "

Shaheen was one of most vocal Democrats to criticize the launch of HealthCare.gov. She's demanded an extension of the enrollment period, and asked President Obama to appoint someone to oversee website fixes into next year.

Theresa Avard says Shaheen's just trying to have it both ways by distancing herself from a law that so many people in New Hampshire hate.

"You can't be a yo-yo," says Avard. "I'm sorry, you know. That's what I call my grandchildren when they don't do right. They yo-yo, up and down."

But Shaheen rejects the suggestion that she's just protecting herself for the next election cycle.

"This should not be about politics. This should be about good policy," says Shaheen. "I've been working on health care issues since I first was elected to the state senate from the seacoast of New Hampshire over 20 years ago."

On this day, she's touring the National Visa Center in Portsmouth to draw attention to a program granting visas for Iraqis and Afghans who risked their lives working for the U.S. Since the rollout of the new health care law, Shaheen hasn't hosted any town hall meetings. But she says her office has been inundated with angry complaints from people upset about the launch.

Still, Shaheen says: "It's a long time from now to [November of] 2014. And I think we're going to get the problems fixed with the health care law.

"I think there will probably be other things that come up, just as there are when we're making that significant of policy change," says Shaheen. "But the way to deal with it [is] to find those fixes."

Toppling Shaheen in 2014 is going to take a formidable force. She was a popular three-term governor who's still enjoying pretty solid poll numbers.

"For Shaheen, right now, Obamacare is the only cloud in the sky in New Hampshire," says Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. "So what she needs to do is just keep guard and not become complacent with what is clearly a winning position at this point."

Former Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts keeps flirting with the idea of running against her, and he has the star power, but he still won't commit.

Bob Smith, a former U.S. senator, has announced his candidacy, but he still needs to move back to New Hampshire from Florida, where he failed twice to win a Senate seat. And the other Republican candidates just don't have much name recognition.

As split as New Hampshire is over the health care law, it's a big question whether people are going to be focusing on other things by next fall.

Back at Chez Vachon, Bob Garon says Republicans need to give up on their obsession with the Affordable Care Act.

"I really don't think that we are going to elect a politician because of Obamacare," says Garon. "I think what's going to sink in is it's the law — whether you like it or not. You can bounce it around and play tennis with it all you want, but it's the damn law."

But the New Hampshire state Republican Party says it plans to make Obamacare a central issue next fall.

"There's no question that what voters care about right now is the collapse of Obamacare — the failed rollout, the increased costs, the decreased access to quality health insurance," says Jennifer Horn, chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party. "So absolutely that is something we will be talking about."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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