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‘Just ridiculous lies’: Dems incensed over misleading GOP ads on Medicare for All

Kentucky Democrat Amy McGrath’s campaign has largely chosen to ignore misleading attack ads that her campaign manager Mark Nicholas calls “ridiculous lies.” | AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File

The GOP is hammering Democratic challengers in swing districts over a plan putting the government in full control of the health care system, betting that voter backlash over the multi-trillion dollar proposal will tip crucial House races to Republicans.

There’s just one problem: Few of the targeted Democrats actually support such a plan.

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“The ad’s bull—-,” Mark Nicholas, campaign manager for Kentucky Democrat Amy McGrath, said of a recent ad from a super PAC affiliated with House Speaker Paul Ryan accusing her of supporting “Medicare for All.“ “These are just ridiculous lies.”

In battleground districts from California to Kentucky to New York, Democrats have gone out of their way to distance themselves from Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) $ 32 trillion single-payer proposal, only to be attacked for endorsing the plan anyway in Republican ads that range from misleading to outright false.

The effort to tie swing-district candidates to a single-payer concept — which Democrats are deeply divided on — illustrates the GOP’s major disadvantage on health care after failing last year to pass unpopular Obamacare repeal bills.

Even President Donald Trump chimed in on the attacks Wednesday, railing against Democrats in a USA Today op-ed for plotting a socialist-style government takeover of health care.

“When it comes to core issues that voters are looking at, obviously Democrats have an advantage on health care,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “So now you’re watching the Republicans sort of move the goalposts.”

That’s why Republican lawmakers facing reelection are also running away from their Obamacare repeal vows. The party’s failed efforts to replace the law only served to boost its popularity. Now with voters overwhelmingly naming health care as their top issue this election cycle, the backlash to the GOP Obamacare overhaul threatens to cost it control of the House.

“It hurt them, no question about it,” Jim McLaughlin, a GOP pollster who does work for the NRCC, said of the repeal vote. “A lot of us, we kind of went into the fetal position after the repeal and replace of Obamacare went down.”

That’s left Republicans grasping, largely unsuccessfully, for an effective response. In attacking Medicare for All, Republicans said they think they’ve found a way to shift the conversation to their advantage.

McGrath, the Kentucky Democrat, is polling even with three-term incumbent Andy Barr (R-Ky.) in the state’s 6th district. She supports letting people buy into Medicare at age 55 — a decade earlier than allowed by law — or adding a “public option” to inject new competition into Obamacare’s insurance marketplaces. While those steps would expand government-funded coverage, they fall well short of a federal takeover.

However, the ad from the Congressional Leadership Fund, the Ryan-affiliated super PAC, uses a selectively edited clip of McGrath praising single-payer to paint her as an ardent advocate. It leaves out that those comments were her speculation about the best way to build a health system from scratch, and that she later went on to detail her plan to modestly expand Obamacare — not overhaul the entire health insurance system.

New York Democrat Anthony Brindisi, who’s running against Rep. Claudia Tenney, and Illinois Democrat Betsy Londrigan, in a tight race with Rep. Rodney Davis, have also been targeted by super PAC ads that misstate their stances on single payer. The National Republican Congressional Committee also is airing Medicare for All attack ads against at least three other Democratic candidates in toss-up races, none of whom have endorsed a government-run health system.

Mike Coffman.

The deceptive Medicare for All ads deride Democrats for supporting a “government takeover of health care” and a massive tax increase, or wanting to “end Medicare as we know it.” All are clear echoes of the rhetorical playbook Republicans used successfully to stir voter anxiety against Obamacare.

As for whether the ads are actually true? That’s beside the point, Republicans say. They argue there’s little difference between Medicare for All and other Democratic ideas for expanding coverage, because they all increase the government’s role in health care. Ultimately, the goal is to make voters associate personally popular Democratic candidates with the broader party, viewed with more skepticism in these traditionally red districts.

“Democrats across the country are embracing an out-of-touch health care plan that comes with a hefty price tag, higher taxes and less choices for families,” said Michael Byerly, a spokesman for the Congressional Leadership Fund.

Democrats hit with misleading single-payer attacks described their opponents as desperate and said it’s evidence that Republicans are afraid of running on their own health care record.

“Health care premiums in New York are going up and protections for pre-existing conditions are under threat, yet Claudia Tenney has continuously voted for attacks on our health care system,” said Brindisi, who’s criticized the incumbent over her vote to repeal Obamacare.

Brindisi supported a state single-payer bill as a legislator in the New York Assembly, but has said consistently he wouldn’t support a similar plan nationwide. Still, the super PAC ad running against him asserts that he “wants to make everyone eligible for Medicare.”

The NRCC is making a similar argument against another New York Democrat, Antonio Delgado, who is running neck-and-neck with Republican Rep. John Faso. Yet, Delgado opposes Medicare for All, which earned him plenty of attacks from fellow Democrats in a brutal seven-way primary earlier this year.

The NRCC has also accused New Mexico Democrat Xochitl Torres Small of supporting a similar “total” government takeover of health care. The NRCC cited as evidence an interview Torres Small did with the local Las Cruces Sun News, in which she emphasized protecting Obamacare but expressed openness to any ideas expanding health coverage. The newspaper condemned the NRCC ad as misleading.

Nine days later, the NRCC launched another ad, citing the same newspaper interview, claiming Torres Small supports single-payer and abolishing popular employer-provided health insurance.

Donald Trump

A spokesman for the NRCC did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Democrats in some cases have tried to get the ads taken down. But there are no rules regulating truth in political advertising over the airwaves, leaving it up to the candidate to appeal to each station airing the ads.

“We do kind of live in a post-truth world,” said Michael Franz, a director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ads. “And I can imagine the sponsors of these ads would make spirited claims about how they’re true in a particular sense of the word.”

Londrigan, the Illinois Democrat, is challenging a super PAC ad claiming she supports a “radical health care plan” costing $ 32 trillion — a clear reference to Medicare for All. She’s called on television stations to pull the ad, pointing out that she’s repeatedly opposed the proposal and instead favors a far less expansive public option.

But the Congressional Leadership Fund has doubled down. In a letter sent to the stations and obtained by POLITICO, the super PAC’s lawyers argue there’s little difference between single-payer and the public option, and the ad’s ambiguous language offers plenty of wiggle room.

The ad “simply brings this information to the attention of Illinois voters so they have an accurate understanding of what could happen to their health care,” the group’s attorneys write.

Democrats say they have few options other than to shrug. They fear turning off voters by going negative, and fighting with TV stations saps resources. Instead, they’re trusting their promises to strengthen the newly popular Obamacare will carry them through to Election Day.

“For us, the biggest challenge was can you really just say, ‘No, we’re taking the high road’ on this level?” said Nicholas, McGrath’s campaign manager.

He said internal polls showing McGrath has weathered the single-payer attacks validates the campaign’s decision to largely ignore them.

“It feels good right now,” he said. “I’d rather be us than them.”

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