Can Jon Ossoff save ObamaCare?

Senate Republicans are inching closer to repealing Obamacare, aiming to hold a vote on their healthcare legislation as soon as next week. But that momentum could come to an abrupt halt if voters in Georgia send a jolt to the political system on Tuesday.

Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff is on the brink of pulling off an improbable victory in a reliably Republican congressional district in suburban Georgia. Georgia’s sixth district — a safely Republican seat once held by Newt Gingrich — has become the subject of a surprisingly close special election race after Donald Trump plucked Tom Price from Congress to serve as his health secretary. Ossoff narrowly missed an outright win in the first round of balloting, and polls show him neck and neck with Republican Karen Handel in the closing days of the runoff campaign.

Ossoff has been able to capitalize on the suburban district’s distaste for Donald Trump. The same district that favored Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by more than 20 points in 2012 narrowly voted for Trump by just 1.5 points. But Ossoff has also centered his campaign around blasting congressional Republicans’ American Health Care Act (AHCA), a nationally reviled piece of legislation that is favored by just one in four residents in Georgia’s sixth district. While Ossoff has resisted grassroots calls to embrace single-payer healthcare, he has advocated building on the foundations of Obamacare to expand universal healthcare.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have hunkered down to draft their own healthcare bill behind closed doors. The nature of the Senate’s budget reconciliation process — along with reports coming out of the hyper-secretive drafting process — mean that the Senate bill won’t be meaningfully different from the devastating House bill, cutting Medicaid coverage for 14 million people on a slightly slower timeline, and reallocating money currently spent on insurance subsidies for the middle-class to tax cuts for the wealthy.

Yet somehow, Senate Republicans appear to be cobbling together a majority behind this grotesque legislative effort. Key senators like Rob Portman, Shelley Moore-Capito, and Bill Cassidy have recently walked back their earlier misgivings about Trumpcare, and seem to be getting on board, albeit gingerly. Those votes get Republicans very close to a majority.

But it’s an extremely rickety working majority — and at this key juncture, an Ossoff win could blow it up. An Ossoff victory would be a resounding repudiation of the GOP’s healthcare plan by voters. On-the-fence Senate moderates may suddenly rediscover their earlier hesitations and jump ship from the repeal effort, and senators up for re-election in 2018 (like Jeff Flake and Dean Heller) may be inclined to follow suit. And even if a bill did pass the Senate, the Republican House members in competitive districts that put AHCA over the top a month ago could lose their nerve when they have to vote on a revised Senate bill, fearing the ammo an “aye” vote would hand to their own Ossoff-like challengers come 2018.

This wouldn’t be the first time a high-profile special election upended healthcare legislation. In January 2010, Democrats were on the cusp of passing Obamacare into law when Republican Scott Brown scored an upset victory for the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts, vowing to be the forty-first vote to deprive the Democrats’ healthcare bill of a filibuster-proof majority. Brown’s victory nearly derailed Obamacare, and Democrats only recovered thanks to their numbers and timing — the Senate had already passed a bill for the House to vote on, and Democrats still had a large enough majority in the Senate to pass the House’s budgetary changes through reconciliation.

Similarly, Congress was piecing together a fragile bipartisan immigration reform deal in the summer of 2014 when insurgent right-wing candidate Dave Brat upset House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary. Brat had spent much of his campaign accusing Cantor of being squishy on immigration; after Brat’s victory, immigration reform was promptly pronounced dead on Capitol Hill.

Perhaps Republicans would shake off an Ossoff victory and push on with their healthcare bill anyway, much like Democrats did after Brown won in 2010. But Democrats had a historical mission to pass healthcare legislation that spanned generations, and their members were willing to push through adversity to get it done. Republicans simply do not have the same commitment. Indeed, Senate Republicans are so disengaged from their own bill that they can’t even articulate what it accomplishes, let alone affirmatively trumpet it in public.

Moreover, Ossoff’s already impressive showing in Georgia is just the latest data point revealing a national wave building against Trump’s GOP come 2018. Republican candidates have already drastically underperformed in special congressional elections in Montana and Kansas, squeaking by Democratic challengers in what should be deep-red blowouts. A victory for Ossoff would force congressional Republicans to finally and fully reckon with the outrage mounting in all corners of the country.

Since the rise of the Tea Party movement’s insistence on right-wing purity during the Obama years, most Republicans in Congress have feared a primary challenge from the right far more than a general election challenge from the left. An Ossoff win in suburban Georgia could change that calculation overnight, recalibrating national politics closer to the center.

So is the Republican healthcare bill about to have its Dave Brat moment? We’ll find out on Tuesday, as voters in Georgia go to the polls with the chance to protect healthcare for the entire nation.



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