McConnell Dodges the Key Question on Health Care

McConnell and Grimes Debate
Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes prepare for their debate at the Kentucky Education Television network headquarters in Lexington on October 13, 2014. Pablo Alcala/Reuters

For nearly a year, Senator Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, running for a sixth term this November, has been caught in a precarious situation: While he has been campaigning on repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) "root and branch," as he likes to say, Obamacare is not only working well in Kentucky but popular. Except they don't call it Obamacare; they call it Kynect.

To cope with this problem, McConnell has been promising the impossible: repeal the ACA but keep Kynect. For months, liberals have been waiting for this contradiction to blow up in his face. Kynect is only successful because of the rules the ACA put in place.

But after his debate with his Democratic challenger, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, Monday night, it's likely McConnell will never really be challenged on the issue.

On Monday night, Grimes and McConnell met in what is probably the only debate in one of the most hotly contested Senate races this year—and one of the Democrats' top opportunities for flipping a Senate seat in their favor. McConnell has consistently led in the polls, although the latest puts Grimes two points ahead. The FiveThirtyEight forecast currently gives McConnell a 75 percent chance of holding his seat.

Under Democratic Governor Steve Beshear, Kentucky expanded Medicaid and created its own insurance exchange, Kynect. The result was one of the most successful implementation stories in the country. Over 500,000 Kentuckians now have insurance through the private exchange and Medicaid. Though Kynect is popular, the law that governs it, Obamacare, is not.

For months, McConnell has campaigned on repealing the ACA while saying that Kynect could remain in place. But that isn't possible. As The New Republic's Brian Beutler recently explained, it's the health care law's "regulations and subsidies that make the plans available on Kynect appealing and affordable."

In Kentucky, veteran political reporter Al Cross has opined that "McConnell has never been made to explain how Obamacare could be repealed 'root and branch' without affecting Kynect." Previewing Monday night's debate, Cross noted that McConnell has been saying that Obamacare is a job killer—a misreading of a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report predicting that 2.5 million people will voluntarily take themselves out of the workforce or reduce their hours because they will no longer rely on an employer for coverage.

During the debate, McConnell and host Bill Goodman of Kentucky Education Television spent nearly six minutes going back and forth about the law. Since debates normally switch between candidates every 60 seconds, this was a rare several minutes with the spotlight entirely on McConnell. Though Goodman pressed him on aspects of his position, McConnell went largely unchallenged.

"Kentucky Kynect is a website," McConnell said when asked about the health care law. "The website can continue."

Goodman pressed him on this point.

Goodman: "You would support the continuation of Kynect?"

McConnell: "Well it's a state decision —"

Goodman: "But would you support it?"

McConnell: "Well that's fine, yeah. I think it's fine to have a website."

Goodman: "Well, it's also insured 521,000 —"

McConnell: "No, it hasn't — "

Goodman: "85,000 of those are in the private insurance market."

McConnell: "Those people, in all likelihood, now are paying more for less… They have insurance that doesn't meet their needs and the reason for that, Bill, is because the federal government is now telling the health insurance companies what they can sell."

In his initial response, McConnell made the claim that 2.5 million jobs will be lost. Goodman tried to press him on this point, too, by pointing out that the CBO report didn't call these job cuts.

McConnell: "Well let's put it really simply: 2.5 million fewer people will be working."

Goodman: "But they're not getting their job cut —"

McConnell: "I don't think that's a good idea for the country to have more joblessness."

When it was finally Grimes's turn to speak, she alluded to the fact that McConnell's position would end up taking insurance coverage away from Kentuckians. But she didn't push the issue as forcefully as many would have liked.

"We have over a half a million Kentuckians who for the first time ever are filling prescriptions, they're going to the doctor, they're getting checkups," Grimes said. "I will not be a senator that rips that insurance from their hands."

Though Grimes never specifically pointed out why McConnell's repeal of Obamacare would also destroy Kynect, the debate was contentious, with McConnell constantly trying to tie his opponent to President Barack Obama. Grimes's attacks on McConnell were relentless, from attacking his personal wealth to calling him a shill for the billionaire Koch brothers. McConnell responded with phrases like "Of course, none of that is factually accurate."

In the end, the most interesting part of McConnell's health care comments was that he used the word "rimracked" instead of "rimrocked" three separate times. (See urbandictionary.com to understand why Twitter was very amused by his mistake.)