The Supreme Court's decision Thursday to uphold the individual mandate in the president's health care law solidified health care as the cornerstone for President Barack Obama's 2012 campaign.
But it remains a tricky issue for Democrats running for Senate in conservative and competitive states.
Already facing attacks over their ties to and alleged support for "Obamacare," "red" state Democrats have been straddling a careful line on the president's health care law, wary that its unpopularity and that of the president would drag down their campaigns. Now, with the Obama campaign and his staunchest supporters preparing to use this ruling as the hallmark of his first term in office, Democrats will likely face increased attacks from Republicans who believe the ruling will ignite their base.
"While we would have preferred to see Obamacare struck down, this decision will drive Republican voter intensity sky-high," Steven Law, president and CEO of American Crossroads said in a statement Thursday. "The last time Obamacare was litigated in a general election, Republicans picked up an historic number of seats in the U.S. House and made big gains in the U.S. Senate."
American Crossroads is one of two major super PACs connected to Karl Rove which each ran health care-based attack ads in 2010. The GOP netted six Senate seats that fall.
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In an email to the press Thursday morning, the National Republican Senatorial Committee highlighted political expert Stu Rothenberg, who wrote that the decision "enhances the Republicans' political position heading to November" in reference to party strategy overall.
But Democrats strongly disagree, arguing that the decision doesn't change the landscape for Senate races.
"This desperate spin game from Republicans is a shameless attempt at distraction from more important issues," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Canter told Yahoo News, calling the economy, the middle class and Republican efforts to privatize Medicare the most pivotal issues. Canter conceded that there are Democrats who believed prior to the ruling that portions of the health care law should be changed. "Democratic candidates have and will continue to make their own proposals to do just that," Canter wrote in a follow-up email.
"I do expect that today's decision will have a positive impact on our campaigns around the country, motivating our supporters, and giving our candidates a chance to talk about many of the specifics of this bill—like insuring coverage for Americans with pre-existing conditions and expanding coverage for our country's veterans," Canter wrote.
Democrats running for the Senate in competitive states stuck to their positions Thursday, with many mentioning potential improvements for the law.
"The Affordable Care Act is an important first step in curbing discriminatory insurance company practices and increasing access to health care, but more needs to be done to bring down costs," Tim Kaine, the Democratic nominee for the Virginia U.S. Senate race, said in a statement released Thursday. "Our government, businesses, and citizens cannot continue to spend more than any other nation on health care while getting second-rate results. As Senator, I am committed to working with all stakeholders to find additional improvements to the Affordable Care Act that give all Americans affordable access to high quality services."
"Today's ruling doesn't mean this responsible, constitutional law can't be improved," Montana Sen. Jon Tester said in a statement. "But it is an important step forward in the fight to fix a broken system and hold big insurance companies accountable to Montana families."
[Related: Is the mandate a tax? Obama has said no]
Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, former North Dakota state attorney general, singled out the controversial individual mandate as the major provision deserving more attention. "There are good things in the health care bill, like keeping insurance companies from dropping people for pre-existing conditions, closing the Medicare Donut Hole, and allowing parents to keep their children covered until they turn 26," Heitkamp said in a statement. "... Moving forward, I'll work with both parties to control costs, keep the good pieces intact and fix the bad pieces, like the individual mandate."
"I for one am confident I can work with Republicans to find common sense solutions that begin with establishing State based exchanges and supporting exciting initiatives by providers to lower costs and improve quality," former Nebraska senator and current Senate candidate Bob Kerrey said in a statement.
Less than three hours after the ruling was issued, Republicans were already using the decision as attack fodder.
"There is a clear contrast in the Nebraska U.S. Senate race," Kerrey's opponent, state Sen. Deb Fischer, said in a statement. "I support the full repeal of ObamaCare. Bob Kerrey opposes repeal and has been a longtime advocate of a universal single-payer system that would eliminate private insurance companies."
"Today the Supreme Court ruled that ObamaCare stands as a new tax on Americans," said Chandler Smith, spokeswoman for Nevada Republican Senate candidate Dean Heller. "Now, Nevada families, businesses, seniors and medical providers must continue to deal with the consequences. Perhaps if seven-term Congresswoman Shelley Berkley had been less focused on following President Obama and Nancy Pelosi, she would have had the courage to make the law work better for Nevadans when she had a chance."
"Joe Donnelly likes to pretend he's not a liberal, but the fact is that Joe Donnelly voted for ObamaCare, which the Supreme Court just recognized as a massive tax increase," Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said of the Indiana U.S. Senate candidate. "Joe Donnelly and Obama are two peas in a pod: they both believe that big government is the answer to every problem and they want the government mandating what you purchase in the private economy. Hoosiers will reject Donnelly and Obama this November."
The National Republican Senatorial Committee weighed in on many competitive races, including Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida's re-election race.
"The Supreme Court today has affirmed Nelson's decision to put President Obama's agenda ahead of Florida seniors and small businesses," the committee said in a press release. "In doing so, the Court has made clear what is at stake in November's election."
National polling taken prior to the ruling showed overall support for the president's law, but the individual mandate received the least amount of support. The court on Thursday voted to uphold the mandate as a tax.