(CNN)Republicans in Washington have moved on -- for now -- from their doomed campaign to unravel Obamacare, but Democratic politicians, activists and voters have most assuredly not.
Democrats are weaponizing the health care debate
Winning candidates and grassroots groups from around the country on Wednesday pointed to their vocal defense of the law, and an ambitious push to broaden its benefits, as a key factor in securing a mini-wave of victories up and down the ballot on Election Day.
On Tuesday, Maine voted -- against the wishes of its Republican governor -- to expand Medicaid in a statewide referendum. And according to exit polls in Virginia, where Republicans suffered sweeping losses, 77% of voters who said health care was the issue that mattered most to them backed Democratic Gov.-elect Ralph Northam.
The effects were felt in Virginia's state legislative races, too, delegate-elect Wendy Gooditis said on a day-after call with the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. Gooditis's brother, who struggled to find treatment for PTSD and then alcoholism because he was not insured, died early on in her campaign.
"I talked and talked and talked about the expansion of Medicaid this year," Gooditis said on Wednesday. "Now, having earned the huge honor of joining the house this year, it's going to be a major push for me, as well as many others."
Outgoing Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe did not expand Medicaid under Obamacare because of opposition from the Republican legislature. Speaking at Northam's victory party on Tuesday night, McAuliffe suggested their resistance had cost them at the polls.
"All the folks who fought me on Medicaid expansion," McAuliffe said, "they all got blown out."
Northam got a boost on the health care front from President Donald Trump in mid-October, when the administration announced plans to stop some federal subsidies to insurers. In a statement then, Northam called the decision "unconscionable" and challenged his Republican rival, Ed Gillespie, to join him in rebuking the White House. (Gillespie passed up the offer.)
A day after Northam's win, the Democratic Governors Association pointed to health care as a key factor in their candidate's success -- and suggested the matter was far from closed.
"Ed Gillespie's strategy of closing his eyes and wishing federal issues didn't exist didn't work in 2017 and won't work in 2018," DGA communications director Jared Leopold said on Wednesday. "Every single Republican running in 2018 is going to have to answer whether they support Donald Trump's health care plan and whether they have the courage to stand up to the President."
As a practical political matter, there is no good answer here for Republicans. They can choose between supporting the party's almost impossibly unpopular slate of Obamacare overhaul plans, or walk away from any effort to reform the law they've spent the better part of eight years telling voters was -- and is now -- a disaster.
The failed efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare "created a huge window for progressive Democrats to give a vision of how government can be put to work in service of all the people, not just a wealthy few," said Joe Dinkin of the Working Families Party. "The turnout boost for Democrats, and especially for progressive candidates, showed that dynamic."
Though the party has yet to hash out its own detailed health care policy plan, the fundamentals of their political position are clear. Entering the 2018 midterm season, they seem ready to weaponize the issue.
"The Democratic unity in opposing ACA repeal drew the kind of light-up-the-sky, bright line distinction between Democrats and Republicans that allows health care to become a voting issue," MoveOn.org Washington director Ben Wikler said on Wednesday. "Over and over at protests against Trumpcare, we chanted, 'you come for our health care, we'll come for your jobs."
It's a threat the party now seems poised to follow through on.