Can the GOP Take Advantage of Obamacare Website Woes?

Several state-run insurance exchanges have verged on disastrous, but the states may be too blue to give Republican gubernatorial candidates much of a boost.
by | May 1, 2014 AT 2:00 PM
Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley (Photos Courtesy of David Kidd/Governing, FlickrCC/norachel, FlickrCC/Governor Neil Abercrombie, FlickrCC/Martha Coakley)

In four states, Republicans have lucked into a potentially potent weapon in the 2014 elections: massive technical problems with state-run health insurance websites. But can the GOP turn this political gift to their advantage?

Several states that chose to build their own sites -- notably Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts and Oregon -- are grappling with serious flaws. Maryland, for example, has decided to scrap its poorly functioning website, which it has already paid a reported $130 million for, to use software developed by Connecticut. And Oregon's website -- built with a reported $248 million in federal funds -- has been deemed so deeply flawed that officials decided to switch to the federal site.

Such high-profile failures of government agencies would seem to provide a major opening for Republican candidates in these states. But due to today's high degree of partisan polarization, the likelihood that the GOP can leverage Democratic website misery to their electoral advantage seems slim, at least for now.

That's because, in part, all four states vote strongly Democratic. In fact, the reason these states opted to build their own sites in the first place was that they were following the law's original design as enacted by a president who won their state by big majorities in 2008 and 2012. By contrast, many states with Republican leadership escaped the problem of faulty state websites because of their general distaste for the law, which led them to default to the federal site rather than building their own.

Each of the four states with problematic websites currently has a Democratic governor, and the Democrats have large legislative majorities in Maryland, Massachusetts and Hawaii. This means, on the one hand, that most of the blame for the sites can be laid at the Democrats' doorstep. On the other hand, these states lean so strongly Democratic that the GOP has relatively few options for making a credible challenge.

For instance, the frontrunner in the open-seat Maryland gubernatorial race, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, has the most to lose since the website's implementation was directly within his portfolio. Brown's first task is to win a contested primary, but in a strongly blue state, it remains to be seen whether the GOP can field any general election candidate who can pose a serious challenge to even a weakened Democratic nominee. "The GOP would be wise to frame the issue as one of the lieutenant governor's competence and honesty," says Roy Meyers, a political scientist at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. "Still, Maryland is a very blue state and the GOP bench is very thin."

In Oregon, where the last time a Republican won the governorship was in 1982, the irony of the website troubles is especially thick: Gov. John Kitzhaber is a physician himself, and he has made health care his signature issue. "There's a lot of anger at the governor for the spectacular failure of the website," says David Sarasohn, a columnist for The Oregonian. "But the likely GOP candidate is a hard-line conservative from a remote southern rural part of the state, and it's hard to imagine him toppling Kitzhaber. A strong Republican with broad appeal might have a shot, but I'm not sure such a candidate exists in Oregon now."

Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie in Hawaii is in a tighter-than-expected race, though the difficulties of polling in the state leave some doubt about whether the health insurance website is of special concern to the incumbent's electability.

And in Massachusetts, current polls in the open-seat gubernatorial race show Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley ahead, though the top Republican, Charlie Baker, is a respected former health-care executive, making the state's website woes a plausible campaign issue. "In a just world, the Democrats should be punished for the website disaster," says Tufts University political scientist Jeffrey Berry. "As of now, however, there is no evidence that this is hurting the party."