For Democrats, ousting Rep. Tom MacArthur was the icing on the cake.
The New Jersey congressman — labeled “the face of the GOP’s health care repeal” by the liberal group Protect Our Care — lost his seat after Democratic former Obama administration official Andy Kim was declared the winner by the Associated Press Wednesday, following a lengthy count of ballots after the Nov. 6 election.
In 2017, MacArthur co-authored an amendment to a major Republican Affordable Care Act (ACA) change bill with Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows. The amendment to the bill, which supporters described as an “Obamacare replacement bill,” handed Democrats a potent campaign weapon. The measure allowed states to waive ACA rules prohibiting insurers from charging sick people more. Party leaders reluctantly adopted it to win conservative holdouts who tanked an earlier version of their bill — and it passed the House.
Though the bill died in the Senate, it became the Democrats’ rallying point in their congressional campaigns, helping them flip Republican-held districts from California’s Orange County to Staten Island and win control of the House. Democratic candidates warned that the GOP effort threatened coverage for people suffering from illnesses like epilepsy or multiple sclerosis.
“The Freedom Caucus forced changes which resulted in tens of millions of dollars in ads that were used to defeat House Republicans in competitive districts,” said GOP Rep. Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania, who voted against the GOP bill. “We lost seats because of what they did.”
Health care was a dominant issue in television advertising in the 2018 election, with more than 1.2 million ads mentioning it, almost three-quarters of them run by Democrats. That forced many Republican candidates to depict themselves as protectors of those with existing medical conditions even as they supported attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.
Dozens of Democrats who challenged incumbent House Republicans made Obamacare, particularly the GOP’s efforts targeting its consumer protections, a central part of their campaigns. That includes Kim, who featured his son’s health issues in ads.
Costello, who is retiring from the House, said the Freedom Caucus was warned that targeting those regulations would backfire, but that it “fell on deaf ears” with the group of hardliners. “All they did was turn suburban Republicans into collateral damage electorally to the point where we lost the majority,” Costello said. “And that and the president’s tone is to blame.”
Asked to respond to the remark by Costello, Meadows replied wryly: “Who??”
Meadows added in a follow-up text message: “Tom MacArthur did unbelievable work to lower premiums and cover pre-existing conditions. Any blame directed at him is misplaced.”
But some allies of House Republican leaders agree the amendment was a mistake.
“Protecting folks with pre-existing conditions is good policy and good politics. Removing those protections in the MacArthur-Meadows agreement handed Washington Democrats a powerful weapon, and they used it to hammer the most vulnerable House Republicans in the midterms,” said Michael Steel, a GOP strategist who served as a spokesman for former House Speaker John Boehner and outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan’s vice presidential bid in 2012.
MacArthur’s district was one of four GOP seats in New Jersey alone that Democrats captured. There are still eight House races unsettled with Democrats leading in four of them.