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Story highlights

Steve Israel: Whatever happens to GOP efforts to trash Obamacare, their 2018 midterm election prospects are looking eerily like Democrats' in 2010

And as Senate and House Republicans keep discovering with false starts at repeal bills, they need to brace themselves for more, Israel writes

Editor’s Note: Former US Rep. Steve Israel, a Democrat from New York, is a political novelist and CNN contributor. His next book, “Big Guns,” will be released in April. This piece is one in a series of columns for CNN Opinion on life after Congress. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

(CNN) —  

It’s not repeal and replace, it’s rewind.

No matter what the outcome of Republican efforts to trash Obamacare, every day of the 2018 midterm election is looking eerily for them like 2010 did for Democrats.

Even now, I still have traumatic flashbacks to that electoral tsunami.

Steve Israel
Steve Israel
PHOTO: Courtesy Steve Israel

At about this point in the 2010 midterm election cycle, Democrats had a confident grip on our majority. Sure, we sensed the headwinds against us. We recognized the strength of the Tea Party, signaling an early gathering of energy for our opponents. We even knew we’d lose seats. Yet our 39-vote margin seemed strong enough to retain the gavel – maybe not a two-fisted hold, but just enough to keep it in our calloused fingers.

Then there was the debate on Obamacare. We were caught somewhere on the political map between doom and dread. If we didn’t pass the bill, our base would abandon us in the midterms, dampening voter turnout. If we passed it, swing voters in our most competitive districts would abandon us and vote for Republicans. Either would increase our losses.

President Obama’s approval was, at this point, comfortably over 50% and slid to the mid-40s by the midterms. President Trump’s current approval is at 40% and even a strong and improbable rebound gets him no higher than Obama’s worst numbers.

I remember the faces of some of my colleagues as the vote on Obamacare neared. In caucus meetings, we listened to passionate (and now familiar) arguments about keeping our campaign promises and passing the bill. Democrats who had won historically Republican districts came to the floor as if en route to their political funerals. Some were enraged that their progressive colleagues didn’t understand the backlash they were getting back home. Others came to the floor with glints of defiance and girded for battle in the upcoming elections, knowing that passing the bill was the right thing to do.

On March 21, the House passed the Senate’s Obamacare bill by a 219-212 vote in the House (the Senate’s bill had passed on Christmas Eve with a filibuster-proof 60-39 majority). President Obama signed the bill into law two days later. In the ensuing midterms, we lost 63 seats and our majority in the House; we held our Senate majority despite losing six seats.

A study by researchers at the University of Denver and North Carolina State University on the impact of the healthcare vote and other legislation singled out 13 seats we lost because of Obamacare, and found that it was the leading reason that House Democrats had been defeated.

Recently, I spoke with former Rep. Baron Hill, an Indiana Democrat. I asked whether he sensed that he might lose his seat when he voted for Obamacare.

“We are elected to lead,” he told me. “The ACA was and is good for people in Indiana as well for the country. Republicans successfully demonized it for political reasons. But if we are really sincere about doing what’s best for the people we represent, especially on an issue as big as ACA, politics needs to be shelved and leadership needs to prevail.”

I’ve never believed that Obamacare alone was responsible for Baron Hill’s defeat, or for the loss of 62 other seats to Republicans in 2010. But it was the tip of the spear. The economy was still reeling from the 2008 meltdown. The middle class felt betrayed and insecure. The Citizens United decision flooded competitive districts with dark money ads from K Street.

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There is one difference between the 2010 races and 2018 (so far). Republicans have outflanked Democrats by taking control of redistricting and fortifying their incumbents. But by every other measure, Republicans looking at 2018 should see shades of 2010. The middle class still feels uncertain. The President is historically unpopular. Democrats have the momentum.

And as Senate and House Republicans keep discovering with false starts at repeal bills, passing something that has the support of a measly 33% of Americans may be like tying a rodeo rope around their bucking base, but it’s also likely to send many voters in search of another horse.

Which means Republicans in Congress should brace themselves.