Raleigh, N.C. — Officials with Americans for Prosperity are launching a new ad criticizing U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan for supporting the Affordable Care Act that analysts say amounts to an opening salvo in her 2014 re-election campaign.
"We want to make sure that North Carolina citizens talk to Sen. Hagan, tell her that there is still an opportunity, and the opportunity is to repeal this law. That's the goal of this ad," said Tim Phillips, national president for the conservative group. "We want to make sure the focus is on the impact of Obamacare."
Although Phillips insisted the ad was part of an ongoing campaign to repeal the technologically troubled health care law, political observers see it as having to do more with politics than prescriptions.
"It's designed to make her look bad," said Kyle Condik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, a project of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "For tax purposes, you can call it whatever you want. It's a campaign ad."
Condik's publication recently rated next year's 2014 U.S. Senate campaign as leaning in favor of Hagan, a Democrat. Much of that, he said, had to do with the unsettled nature of the Republican field and that the most likely GOP challenger, House Speaker Thom Tillis, was facing a vigorous primary challenge from Cary doctor Greg Brannon.
On a phone call with reporters Tuesday, Hagan didn't flinch from her support of the health care law. Saying she was frustrated with the technical problems associated with its roll out, she said AFP's criticism of her support for the law made little difference to her.
"I'm not concerned with what outside special interests have to say," Hagan said.
The ad itself is a 30-second spot that will run on both cable and broadcast television over the next three weeks, Phillips said.
"Kay Hagan just doesn't get it," intones the female voice in the ad. "Instead of listening to North Carolina, Hagan continues to push for Obamacare."
The ad goes on to make claims about changes Hagan favors for the law, says she favors "Washington insiders" and then urges viewers to "Tell Kay Hagan, that's just wrong."
"Whether it's money well spent or not, I don't know," Condik said, pointing out that conventional wisdom about television advertising is that its effects wear away after a few weeks. The U.S. Senate election is a year away.
Still, AFP may be taking a page from Hagan's own playbook. In 2008, Hagan's allies were able to air ads all summer that went unanswered by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, the Republican incumbent whom Hagan eventually unseated.
Although Hagan has yet to fully engage in the campaign, her allies are doing their best to tie potential Republican contenders to unpopular GOP policies.
"I think it makes some sense," said Kenneth Fernandez, an assistant professor of political science at Elon University and the director of the Elon University Poll.
He pointed to his poll's September release that showed half of respondents believe the Affordable Care Act will make the health care situation in North Carolina worse. Only 29 percent of those surveyed said it would make things better.
Tying Hagan to what appears to be an unpopular program could be a sensible political strategy. The trick for Republicans, Fernandez said, would be keeping the health care law's foibles front and center.
The troubled roll out of the online enrollment marketplace, Fernandez said, gives Republicans and their allies a chance to push those links. While Americans for Prosperity isn't an explicitly Republican group, it is part of a network of conservative groups much friendlier to the GOP than Democrats.
The Hagan ad is one of two AFP is launching this week. The other targets Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, another Democrat facing re-election in 2014.
"They're going to want to keep Obamacare an issue until next November, and this is how you do it – you just keep hammering at it," Fernandez said.
In addition to the ads, AFP will hammer away on social media, special events and through phone banks and knocking on doors, said Phillips and acting AFP State Director Chris Farr.
"We want to make sure that the public keeps the issue of Obamacare and its impact on their lives at the very forefront of their minds," Phillips said. "I think ads like this could absolutely impact that. A lot of times in an election season, which I guess we're having next year, issues that aren't really issues pop up. We think Obamacare is one of the biggest, most important issues possible."
While Hagan has called for the government to take more time to implement the law, she said that early troubles have not made her rethink her votes.
"Today, obviously, people are frustrated," Hagan said. "But as this process goes forward, I think the availability of health insurance, looking at prescription drug coverage, looking at the cost, looking at bending the cost curve of medical costs is something that's already been helped because of the Affordable Care Act becoming law."
She credits the law with prompting hospitals to provide better follow-up care to avoid re-admissions.
"A lot of change has already taken place," Hagan said. "I think we'll continue to see that kind of updating the delivery of health care, making it more affordable and making it available to millions of people in our county that never had access to health coverage."