GOP fears political fallout after health care ‘epic fail’

FILE - In this July 25, 2017 file photo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., center, with Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, right, and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington. Weary Republicans in Washington may be ready to move on, but conservatives across the country are warning that the GOP-led Congress cannot abandon its pledge to repeal “Obamacare” without triggering a political nightmare in next year’s midterm elections. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

By STEVE PEOPLES and

THOMAS BEAUMONT

Associated Press

NEW YORK — Weary Republicans in Washington may be ready to move on from health care, but conservatives across the United States are warning the GOP-led Congress not to abandon its pledge to repeal the Obama-era health law — or risk a political nightmare in next year’s elections.

The Senate’s failure this past week to pass repeal legislation has outraged the Republican base and triggered a new wave of fear. The stunning collapse has exposed a party so paralyzed by ideological division that it could not deliver on its top campaign pledge.

After devoting months to the debate and seven years to promising to kill the Affordable Care Act, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., simply said: “It’s time to move on.”

But that’s simply not an option for a conservative base energized by its opposition to the health law. Local party leaders, activists and political operatives are predicting payback for Republicans lawmakers if they don’t revive the fight.

“This is an epic fail for Republicans,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans For Prosperity, the political arm of the conservative Koch Brothers’ network. “Their failure to keep their promise will hurt them. It will.”

To the American Conservative Union, the three Republican senators who blocked the stripped-down repeal bill that failed in the wee hours Friday are “sellouts.” A Trump-sanctioned super political action committee did not rule out running ads against uncooperative Republicans, which it did recently against Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.

There are limited options for directly punishing the renegade senators — John McCain of Arizona, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. None of the three is up for re-election next fall. McCain, whose dramatic “no” vote killed the bill, is serving his last term in office, has brain cancer and is hardly moved by electoral threats.

Still, broad disillusionment among conservative voters could have an impact beyond just a few senators. Primary election challenges or a low turnout could mean trouble for all Republicans. Democrats need to flip 24 seats to take control of the House of Representatives, a shift that would dramatically re-shape the last two years of Trump’s first term.

“If you look at competitive districts, swing districts, or districts where Republicans could face primary challenges, this is something that will be a potent electoral issue,” Republican pollster Chris Wilson said of his party’s health care failure. “I don’t think this is something voters are going to forget.”

One such challenger has emerged. Conservative activist Shak Hill, a former Air Force pilot, plans to run against second-term GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock in a competitive northern Virginia district.

Hill told The Associated Press that Comstock, who voted against a GOP House health care repeal bill in May, “has failed the moral test of her time in Congress.”

The leaders of other groups, such as Women Vote Trump, have begun to court primary challengers to punish those members of Congress deemed insufficiently committed to President Donald Trump’s agenda.

“I expect that we will get involved in primaries,” said the group’s co-founder, Amy Kremer. “You cannot continue to elect the same people over and over again and expect different results.”

On Capitol Hill, some Republicans insist their health care overhaul could be saved in the short term. Yet party leaders — backed by outside groups — are signaling that they would probably move on to taxes.

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