RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Ken Cuccinelli last week rolled out what he believes is a game-changer in his Republican race for governor against Democrat Terry McAuliffe: the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare," for Cuccinelli's purposes.
His loathing for the Democratic-passed law is in many ways his calling card. It was the first action to put him in the national limelight and rocketed him to superhero status among the nation's conservative tea party movement when he became the first state attorney general to sue challenging the law's constitutionality — just one day after Obama signed it.
On Tuesday, it became a major feature of Cuccinelli's struggling campaign.
It debuted alongside a federal shutdown with Congress stalemated over GOP demands that government funding be tied to defunding the health care act and dismaying headlines about the chaotic first day of the act's "exchanges," or online health insurance markets.
Cuccinelli had long ago set that date — Oct. 1 — to inaugurate a series of "Obamacare Roundtables" across the state in which small clusters of conservative businesspeople would add their horror stories about the new law to those Cuccinelli has honed for years.
It's a job killer, Cuccinelli told seven Goochland County business leaders at Thursday roundtable in a suburban Richmond office complex. The law's looming mandate that companies that employee 50 or more people who average 30 hours or week or more provide health care benefits has already forced some large employers, including Home Depot and Virginia's Community College system, to cut full-time workers to part-time — 29 hours or less — to avoid the costs.
Cuccinelli calls the 30-hour rule — delayed for a year by the president — "the most destructive single economic regulation I've ever seen in my life."
And for those who already have insurance, he says, it's introducing uncertainty into the insurance market, forcing companies to pay more themselves and require higher premiums, deductibles and co-payments to their covered employees.
"We really don't know, with our employees, what we're going to be able to do next spring when our (group insurance policy) cycle comes up," added Ben Sloan, whose custom software company in Goochland employs 12 people. Sloan was a delegate to the state Republican Party convention that nominated Cuccinelli in May.
Christopher J. LaCivita, Cuccinelli's chief political adviser, had choreographed the rollout for months, and said it will remain at the campaign's forefront for the duration. He and Cuccinelli both sense the campaign is surfing the tide of public disenchantment with the law that will only grow and yield decisive dividends in a close election on Nov. 5.
"Our opponent has built his entire message and the success of his administration on the success of Obamacare and the expansion of Medicaid — more money for schools, more money for transportation," LaCivita said in a recent conversation about one of his campaign's end-game maneuvers. "Now you see Obamacare crumbling before your very eyes on TV every night. So, yeah, it's an issue we're going to use."
The ACA has had a premiere that can charitably be called rough.
Stories abounded of millions of frustrated consumers who encountered swamped telephone lines and websites that floundered because bandwidth fell short of huge startup demand. The Obama administration was forced to take down its health overhaul website during the weekend in hopes of repairing and upgrading it and seeing better performance this week.
In that, however, lies a risk inherent in Cuccinelli's late-game gambit. There actually was a huge demand for the service — enough to confound the information technology folks who erroneously reckoned the system was ready for launch. Sooner or later, after the bugs are worked out, what if people actually like it?
For all its warts, there are important changes in the confusing health overhaul that Americans have demanded for years, particularly middle-income families, said Ron Pollack, founding executive director of Families USA, a nonprofit and nonpartisan group that advocates for affordable health care.
Insurance companies can no longer deny people coverage because of pre-existing conditions, Pollack noted. Nor can they charge women higher prices, he said, and parents can keep their children on their employers' policies until their 26th birthdays.
"The ACA provides the opportunity to finally gain access to high-quality care for millions of people who have been priced out of coverage before," he said, adding that Cuccinelli risks alienating many of the working class supporters he hopes to win over. Under the ACA, he said, individuals earning $46,000 a year or a household of four with $94,200 in combined annual income qualify for subsidies.
Bob Denton, a Virginia Tech professor specializing in political communications, said a campaign aimed at the health reform law could be effective at shoring up Cuccinelli's conservative base of support, but questioned its effectiveness beyond that.
"It could activate his base voters who've said, 'Well, I'm not too sure about him,' and prove his bona fides, but I'm not sure it's going to help him get the independents, the women or the youth vote," Denton said. "One of the problems I see is linking Obamacare to McAuliffe. If McAuliffe's elected, he's going to be governor. He's not going to be in Congress."
McAuliffe defends his position as a pragmatic one, noting that the federal government is obligated to fully pay for the first three years of expanding Medicaid to as many as 400,000 Virginia working poor. That Cuccinelli would deny Virginia the federal money and break with Republican governors in Ohio, Arizona and Florida who have approved Medicaid expansion "shows just how far outside the mainstream Cuccinelli is," said McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin.
For Cuccinelli, however, his strategy is clear and he's comfortable with it.
"At the end of the day, people are going to pay more for health care, it represents a monumental tax increase, it's a huge drain on jobs when employees are being cut back to 28 hours a week. The horror stories don't end with just the opening of the exchanges," LaCivita said.
Bob Lewis has covered Virginia government and politics for The Associated Press since 2000.
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