ST. PETERSBURG — Democrats believe they've found a winning issue in 2018: health care.
Prominent state party officials, including U.S. Reps. Charlie Crist and Kathy Castor, held a rally Tuesday in St. Petersburg's Williams Park to underscore the differences between Republican and Democratic health care policy proposals.
"Here in America, health care is a right, it's not a privilege for the wealthy few," Castor, D-Tampa, said before about 200 supporters. "It's something that everyone deserves."
Democrats are hoping to flip the script from the 2010 and 2014 midterms, when conservative Republicans turned out in droves to empower candidates running against the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama's signature health care bill. During the Trump presidency, that law has survived multiple repeal attempts by the Republican-controlled Congress, which has struggled to come up with a politically viable alternative.
Democrats have long maintained that the Republican attempts to undermine the ACA — which insured millions but failed to curb rising health care costs for others — will hurt the GOP come November. When the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed the American Health Care Act last summer, Democrats taunted their colleagues with the chorus of the song Nah Nah Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.
If the turnout at Tuesday's scorching noontime rally was any indication, Democrats might be able to fire up their base by talking health care. The Williams Park crowd rivaled that of a recently held "March for our Lives' rally to protest gun violence.
Several speakers and audience members extolled the virtues ACA, while chiding Republicans for their efforts to repeal it.
Karen Clay, a local Democratic voter whose son suffers from a rare genetic disease that requires nearly constant medical attention, called Republican proposals like turning Medicaid into a series of block grants and allowing for lifetime spending caps on insurance policies "harmful."
Claudia McCann, a retired resident of St. Petersburg who joined the Democratic Party to vote for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential primary said in an interview that the insurance she bought from the so-called ACA exchange was the best she ever had.
Other attendees expressed themselves with signs. Leanne Walker, a retired resident of Clearwater, brought one that read, "Obamacare saved my life!"
Despite the slate of Florida speakers — including St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Grace Nelson, the wife of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson — the star of the event was from out of town. U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass. roused the crowd on the importance of voting for Democrats in 2018.
"Every November, the nation's eyes turn to Florida," said Kennedy, grandson of Robert Kennedy, and a member of one of the most famous families in American politics. "What happens in Florida is so much bigger than just Florida. It means the future of health care for millions of people across this country."
Elected officials and audience members were also quick to bring up their distaste for President Donald Trump.
"You base a country's well being not just on economic growth, but on the soul of this country," Kris Radish, a St. Petersburg author, said. "Since the last election, this country has lost its soul."
Statements like Radish's are evidence of how thoroughly President Trump dominates the political discourse. How can Democrats break through Trump's controversies to communicate their supposedly popular vision for American health care to voters?
In an interview, Crist said holding rallies like Tuesday's are a good first step.
"It's important to keep repeating, getting the message out," Crist said.
How specifically Democrats will turn their message of health care for all into a workable policy remains to be seen. Throughout the rally, attendees cheered mentions of far-left policy ideas like a single-payer Medicare for all system. But many Democrats aren't yet on board with such a policy — let alone conservative Republicans.