For years, Sen. Bill Nelson has faced a steady barrage of partisan attacks over the Affordable Care Act, but as he begins the 2018 re-election campaign, the Democrat stands to benefit from a flipped script:
Republicans, who have a complete lock on Congress, failed to get rid of the law and are now on the defensive while support for Obamacare grows.
"They tried. They couldn't replace it. Then they tried, and they couldn't repeal it," Nelson told the Tampa Bay Times after an event in St. Petersburg this week.
"I don't think their position is going to be very ascendant in next year's election. Exactly the opposite," he said. "I think those of us who stood up for it, and hopefully now can economically strengthen it so that it does work like it was intended. I think that is going to be the preferred position going into the election."
That posture defangs a central message of Republicans, who spent millions on anti-Obamacare ads in Nelson's 2012 election, and of Nelson's possible opponent, Gov. Rick Scott, who made several visits to Washington and said he was helping craft legislation to replace the law.
On Friday, Scott maintained that the law is no good.
"Bill Nelson's a big supporter of Obamacare," Scott said in an interview in Tampa. "What we've seen since then is, premiums have gone up. Deductibles have gone up. The cost of Medicaid has gone up. There's nothing in it that says long-term, you can pay for it."
The law, he said, is a "disaster," adding, that more competition is needed, including allowing people to purchase an array of plans, including those from insurers out of state.
"President (Barack) Obama left in the nick of time. This thing is spiraling out of control," Scott said.
Still, the GOP could not muster support for their proposals to overhaul Obamacare and those plans were deeply unpopular in public opinion surveys. Provisions that could have raised costs for older Americans were especially disliked. Amid that contentious debate, support for Obamacare grew.
At this time in 2011, before Nelson's last election, nearly 51 percent of Americans opposed the law while 39 percent favored it, according to the RealClearPolitics.com average of polls. Now, 46.5 percent approve and 42 percent disapprove.
"What Obamacare is being judged against now is what the Republicans came up with and the voters have flatly and overwhelmingly rejected those plans," said Democratic pollster Tom Eldon, who is not affiliated with Nelson's campaign.
"Scott's going to have questions to answer more so than Bill Nelson," Eldon added.
David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, pointed to a Quinnipiac University poll from earlier this month that showed 80 percent of registered voters oppose the GOP-led effort on health care, including 60 percent of Republicans.
"Scott's health care platform and his broken promises are toxic with voters of every political persuasion. This issue will be at the center of the 2018 campaign, and we will hold him accountable," Bergstein said.
Democrats have already done some online advertising on the issue against Scott, even though he is not a declared candidate.
Republicans have shifted messaging, seeking to tie Nelson and other Democrats to a single-payer health care system favored by liberals such as Sen. Bernie Sanders. The idea, also known as Medicare for all, has gradually gotten more popular among Democrats but has virtually no chance of being adopted. Republicans have cast it as akin to budget-busting socialism.
Nelson hedged on the issue.
"The long and short of it is, I've had enough trouble trying to save Obamacare," he said. "So that's way on down the road. Let's get through this first."
Times staff writers Divya Kumar and Langston Taylor contributed to this report.