OLYMPIA — Hoping to prevent damage to his bid for governor, Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna said Thursday he won’t back his party’s continuing efforts to repeal the health care law.
McKenna, who signed onto the multi-state legal challenge rejected Thursday by the Supreme Court, said the lawsuit achieved its goal of clarifying the lines of power between the federal government and the states in the provision of health care.
He said it is now “politically unrealistic” to “completely blow it up” and critics should instead spend their time trying to fix the bad parts.
As McKenna spent Thursday trying to put a good spin on the legal defeat, Democratic candidate Jay Inslee likely breathed a sigh of relief when the 5-4 decision came down.
He voted for the law as a congressman and faced the potential of defending his support of an unconstitutional mandate. Instead, he got to toss a couple of barbs at his opponent.
“I disagreed with Mr. McKenna. I thought he was wrong from the beginning,” Inslee said.
What’s unclear now is whether fallout from Thursday’s decision will affect their duel for governor.
“I don’t think it will be a big deal at all,” said Chris Vance, a political consultant and former state Republican Party chairman. “Voters are smart enough to understand what’s important is what the governor will do over the next four years and not what position the two candidates took on a Supreme Court decision.
“It is not a game-changer,” Vance said. “I believe Washington state issues are going to be the deciding factor this fall, not a federal issue.”
Ron Dotzauer of Snohomish, owner of Strategies 360 consulting firm and longtime strategist for Democrats, reached the same conclusion.
“It’s not going to have any impact on the outcome of the governor’s race going forward,” he said.
Voters who legitimately have not made up their minds come November are more likely to be swayed by a candidate’s approach on education and the economy rather than the side they took in the fight on the federal health care law, he said.
The economy will be the issue that tips the scales in November, said Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia who tracks major political contests nationwide.
But the health care decision will inflame passions of ideologues in both parties and provide a corollary benefit for McKenna even if he stays out of the debate.
“You could argue that enthusiasm will matter in November, so if either side is disappointed by the Court, they may be more inclined to work hard so that the decision can be reversed,” he said in an email. “Under that scenario, I suppose McKenna would actually benefit if the Court upheld Obamacare. Republicans would be furious.”
Blair Butterworth, a Democratic consultant who managed the campaigns of former Gov. Gary Locke, thinks health care will be a very big deal right up until polls close on Election Day.
Nationally, the Republican Party, its candidates for federal offices and the independent committees backing them will spend millions of dollars to convince voters the only path to repeal is with their team, he said.
McKenna is on the team and can’t hide from the fact he actively participated in the legal challenge that failed, Butterworth said.
“This is the worst result for (McKenna),” he said. “Inslee can say, ‘What were you doing?’ Now, Inslee has got some arrows in his quiver to shoot toward McKenna.”
Reid Wilson, editor-in-chief of National Journal’s Hotline, a daily tip sheet on campaigns across the country, said pressing the issue could be bad for both Inslee and McKenna.
“Polling is starting to indicate that voters are getting tired of talking about health care,” he wrote in an email. “And it’s in both Inslee’s and McKenna’s best interests to let the matter drop – Inslee doesn’t want to spend time talking about an unpopular measure, and McKenna doesn’t want to give Democrats any reason to portray him as an ultra-conservative.”
McKenna is trying to become the state’s first Republican governor in three decades and doesn’t want to offend independent voters, in whose hands the election may swing.
To that end, he’s avoided associating himself with the national Republican Party, strategists noted.
But his actions on the health care law joined him with conservative elements of the party.
“It gave Democrats an opening to label McKenna as a partisan Republican – which can be death in a presidential year,” Wilson wrote.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org