Health care in voters' hands

U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Monticello, is being targeted in midterms.

U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Monticello, is being targeted in midterms.

WASHINGTON — Just before signing the health care bill, President Barack Obama paid tribute to the "historic leadership and uncommon courage of the men and women of the United States Congress, who've taken their lumps during this difficult debate."

"Yes, we did," someone shouted, the jam-packed White House East Room breaking into laughter.

With the legislation now law, the contentious debate is shifting to a broader forum: cities and towns across America, where Republicans and their allies are hoping voters are ready to deliver more lumps in the congressional midterm elections.

"This fight is far from over," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., vowed Wednesday.

But with the public divided over the plan's merits and generally distrustful of the federal government, the ultimate decider may be who can best pitch their message.

The battle will inject tens of millions of dollars into campaigns, and Florida is one of the principal battlegrounds. Every Democrat from the state voted for the bill; every Republican voted against. Only a few may pay the price, but it could add to a national swing diminishing Democrats' lock on power.

Sarah Palin said last week that her political action committee will spend money to try to defeat Reps. Suzanne Kosmas of New Smyrna Beach and Allen Boyd of Monticello, whose health care votes went from no to yes, lifting Democrats to a slim victory.

"This is just the first salvo in a fight to elect people across the nation who will bring common sense to Washington," Palin wrote on Facebook.

A map identified 20 congressional districts with the crosshairs of a gunsight, a symbol some said contributed to angry threats toward some lawmakers, including bricks through windows and vicious voice mails.

Kosmas and Boyd are in conservative districts that were won by GOP presidential candidate McCain in 2008 (51 and 54 percent, respectively), which is why Palin thinks they are vulnerable.

"Sarah ought to stay in Alaska," Boyd said.

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Boyd is counting on voters better understanding the plan, which will extend coverage to 32 million more Americans, including 67,000 in his Panhandle district. Across Florida, 20 percent — or up to 4 million people — lack insurance.

"It's not a government takeover," Boyd said of the overhaul package. "It does things in a fiscally responsible way."

In the 22 years he has served in public office, before as a member of the Florida Legislature, Boyd said he has attended hundreds of public forums. "I've never been to one that you didn't have a question about the accessibility of affordable health care," he said.

Still, many of his constituents are bitterly divided. "I have been a longtime supporter of Boyd, believing that he was one of us — a conservative, folksy grandfather figure who grew up on a farm and shared our values," Michael L. Hammond of Port St. Joe wrote in a letter to the Panama City News Herald. "I vote for the person, not the party, and for years have made excuses for Boyd's horrible voting record. Not any more."

John Underwood of Panama City thanked Boyd for having "moral courage to do what is right while knowing his vote to support health care reform would be wildly unpopular among the majority of voters in his district."

Boyd said he will spend the coming weeks traveling the district and talking to voters. He has recorded a message delivered by phone across the district and the Democratic National Committee has made a "robo call" on his behalf. "You sent your representative to Washington to represent you and that's exactly what he is doing," the voice says.

And on Friday, Democrats e-mailed his constituents urging them to write letters to the editor, offering a host of talking points tailored to the Second Congressional District.

His opponents were using Facebook and other means to portray Boyd as a puppet of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who had to exert pressure on members to get the votes to pass the legislation.

• • •

In his seventh term, Boyd is less vulnerable than the freshman Kosmas, who took a seat held by Republicans and has been a target ever since. Even before she changed her vote, an opponent was running an ad on local radio, calling her a "sellout."

"I traveled all around the district in the last six or seven weeks talking about this issue and it was not favored by the people," Craig Miller said in an interview, noting he has extended the radio ad.

Kosmas, who declined to be interviewed, has landed on various national lists that rank competitive districts and hers is considered a tossup. She has raised more than $1 million, far more than any GOP challenger, but outside money could flood into the race.

Democrats said they will come to the lawmakers' aid. Organizing For America, Obama's campaign arm, launched "You Fight, We'll Fight" in February where volunteers pledged to work for members of Congress who supported the health care overhaul. Nationwide, 9 million volunteer hours were pledged.

More immediately, Organizing for America is directing help to another Florida lawmaker, Rep. Alan Grayson of Orlando. Last week, the group began running a 30-second TV ad in his district thanking him for his vote.

The AARP, which has a major influence in Florida, plans a sweeping education campaign, and Health Care for America Now, a pro-reform coalition of labor unions and other groups that spent more than $47 million in the past two years, decided not to shut down and is raising more money.

It has run TV ads in Boyd's and Kosmas' districts thanking them for their votes and planned airport rallies when Kosmas and Grayson returned home over the weekend. "We need to explain why this was not just a political victory but a victory for the public," spokeswoman Jacki Schechner said.

• • •

Conservative groups plan to pressure through their own ads and mailers and rallies.

"It symbolizes everything people don't like about Washington, D.C., and the liberals, this arrogance that Washington knows best," said Tim Phillips, head of the conservative Americans for Prosperity, which helped organize rallies against the proposals.

The group has attracted more than 340,000 people to a Web site — novemberiscoming.com — that includes a pledge to vote against those who sided with the health care bill.

In a stark display of activism, a Republican National Committee site called firenancypelosi.com raised more than $1.4 million in matter of days after the vote. Its aim is to win 40 more House seats and take control of the chamber, deposing Pelosi.

But the Republican strategy, which includes hammering away at taxes under the plan and an "individual mandate" that everyone carry insurance, carries risks.

The overhaul includes a number of provisions that were popular to both parties and the public: closing the prescription drug "doughnut hole" in Medicare; allowing dependents to remain on their parents' insurance plans until age 26; and barring insurers from denying coverage because of a pre-existing condition.

"They fairly smartly crafted those things to go in before dramatic cuts and tax increases," said Republican Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow. As a result, he said his party will have to fine-tune the message.

"It will have to be a smarter debate than just 'No way, no how.' "

Sensing the danger of pushing a sour grapes message, Republicans quickly recast their message, saying they would work to undo the law and offer other changes. They even came up with a campaign slogan: "Repeal and replace."

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at learyspt.

Health care in voters' hands 03/28/10 [Last modified: Sunday, March 28, 2010 3:28pm]

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