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Wait -- Obamacare isn't an issue?

By Leigh Ann Caldwell, CNN
updated 4:50 PM EDT, Fri May 30, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Republicans are broadening their message beyond Obamacare
  • Polling suggests that fewer people want to repeal the law
  • Republicans voted more than 50 times to repeal Obamacare after it was enacted

Washington (CNN) -- The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, might not be the Republican Party's key to electoral victory as once thought.

Patterns are emerging that Republicans and like-minded groups are broadening their scope and not homing in on a singular anti-Obamacare message.

In March, Reince Priebus, head of the Republican National Committee, told CNN's Candy Crowley that Obamacare is "complete poison" and advised Republican candidates they "have to hit your main target which is Obamacare" in order to win.

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But in the political world, things change fast, and March is the equivalent to a millennium ago.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who is in a reelection bid against surprisingly strong Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, recently said that while he wants to repeal the law, Kentucky's version, Kynect, is "unconnected" to the fate of Obamacare.

Kynect is relatively popular in Kentucky, providing insurance coverage to more than 413,000 people, but was created under the Affordable Care Act and is funded mostly through federal funds.

McConnell's shift is subtle but meaningful. During his primary campaign against a candidate who billed himself as more conservative than McConnell, the Senate leader took a hard-line stance on getting rid of -- or repealing -- Obamacare, which has been the Republican mantra until recently.

He's not the only one. Americans for Prosperity, which is expected to spend north of $100 million this election cycle backing issues that Republicans favor, has also shifted its strategy.

In the lead up to the launch of Obamacare last fall, during its disastrous rollout and in the months after, AFP had a laser-like focus on the issue, spending tens of millions of dollars in states and districts where Democrats are vulnerable.

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"We do want to make sure that Obamacare is the Number One issue in the country," AFP President Tim Phillips said in February.

At that time, the law had been in effect for less than two months, it was lagging behind its target enrollment pace and the effects of a bad roll out still permeated.

Phillips said Obamacare is going to be the top issue because the "tidal wave affects are going to continue with Obamacare."

Furthermore, a March 15 statement on the organization's website described itself as the "nation's foremost advocate for health care freedom."

But now, two months later, AFP has broadened its scope. Its website now features a campaign against the Export-Import Bank, which is not related to Obamacare. Also, an ad airing in Louisiana, where Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu is locked in a tight reelection race, attacks her for "wasteful government spending." Missing from the ad -- the word "Obamacare."

In addition, its partner group, AFP Foundation, launched an $850,000 ad buy in Wisconsin earlier this week that focuses on taxes and also doesn't mention the O-word.

AFP doesn't deny it.

"We're responding to the changing environment," AFP spokesman Levi Russell said. "That initial shock (of Obamacare) has changed a little bit, but it hasn't gone away."

Republicans are now retooling their message, after having emerged from primary battles of who's farther to the right they must now try to appeal to a more diverse audience that has become more accepting of the federal health care program approved in 2010 without Republican support.

Polling suggests that public attitudes are shifting.

The latest CNN poll from early May found that 38% of people wanted to either replace the law or get rid of it. The results are similar to a CBS poll which found 35% of respondents said the law needs to be repealed, which is a far better billing than the 43% who felt the same way in November.

Elizabeth Wilner with the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan polling group, wrote that Republicans are starting to use the word "fix" in their campaigning, instead of "repeal."

"Republicans have been gearing up for months ... to run against Obamacare, then it started to work," Michael Czin, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee said, noting that 8 million people have signed up.

Since Republicans gained control of the House in 2011, they voted more than 50 times on a full or partial repeal of the health care law, that's more than one vote per month, but the pace has fallen off dramatically in recent months.

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That matters because in an election year, congressional business is connected to electoral politics as lawmakers want to either promote their agenda or tarnish the other party.

But Russell predicts the issue will not go away, especially as the elections approach and new premium rates are announced this fall.

"Our role is going to be to remind folks how we got here in the first place," he said.

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