For at least the seventh time since December, Luke Messer's U.S. Senate campaign in late February accused Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly of casting “the deciding vote” to prevent the repeal of “Obamacare” – officially known as the federal Affordable Care Act.
Donnelly was among 48 Democratic senators – along with three Republican lawmakers – who voted last July against legislation to eliminate parts of the health care law. Forty-nine Republicans supported gutting the law that expanded Americans' access to medical insurance and subsidizes coverage for many.
But if there was a deciding vote, it was cast by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who strode into the Senate and made a thumb-down gesture to become the third GOP senator to oppose the measure. Had McCain instead turned his right-hand thumb toward the Senate ceiling, Vice President Mike Pence would have cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the legislation known as the “skinny repeal.”
USA Today reported at the time that McCain, who is battling brain cancer, “delivered the death blow” to the bill. A Washington Post headline stated that McCain “killed” the legislation. More recently, President Donald Trump told the American Conservative Union's annual gathering that “one person” defeated the bill by giving it a thumb-down gesture – and Trump's audience shouted McCain's name. C-SPAN has archived a video clip with the heading “Senator McCain Votes Against Health Care Repeal.”
Yet U.S. Rep. Messer, one of three candidates for the Republican nomination to challenge Donnelly in this year's general election, keeps insisting that the Indiana senator has been responsible for preserving the Affordable Care Act.
Donnelly is “the tie-breaking vote on Obamacare, and he's been the tie-breaking vote to keep Obamacare time and time and time again,” Messer said at a Feb. 20 debate among the GOP Senate candidates.
Messer made the claim again Wednesday, a day after Donnelly commented on a study by the Urban Institute. The study projects large increases in Affordable Care Act insurance prices next year – including a 20-percent jump for Indiana. Two reasons were cited: Congress has eliminated a provision of the law requiring Americans to carry insurance, and the Trump administration has proposed expanding short-term, limited-duration insurance policies that are not regulated by the health care law. Together, those developments will shrink federal insurance marketplace enrollment, which will drive up premiums for remaining customers, depressing enrollment further, the Urban Institute predicted.
Donnelly said Tuesday in a statement that the White House is trying “to undermine our health care system.” That prompted criticism from Messer, whose campaign said twice in the same news release that Donnelly was “the deciding vote” to prevent the Senate from repealing the Affordable Care Act. Messer called it a “failed law” that has had “disastrous effects” on Hoosiers.
Paul Helmke, former three-term Republican mayor of Fort Wayne, said Messer has “a legitimate point” that Donnelly could have changed the outcome by reversing his July vote on the skinny repeal. He said Donnelly, however, in turn could make the case that there were more than enough Senate Republicans to pass the measure without Democratic votes.
Helmke said calling Donnelly the deciding vote is like arguing that any state other than Florida – the last to be counted, recounted and finally ruled upon by the U.S. Supreme Court – determined the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. Was Florida any more or less decisive than Al Gore's home state, Tennessee, which went for eventual winner George W. Bush, Helmke wondered.
“When a vote, or an election, is close, it is easy to point to almost anyone or anything as being the reason,” Helmke, director of the Civic Leaders Living-Learning Center at Indiana University-Bloomington, said in an email.
But political scientist Joe Losco said last summer's health care vote in the Senate was different.
“There are very few cases where you can pinpoint a deciding vote – the case of John McCain visibly casting the deciding vote on ACA repeal comes to mind,” Losco, professor emeritus at Ball State University and an adjunct professor at Ball State and Loyola University Chicago, said in an email.
Messer is far from the first political candidate or advocacy group to use this campaign tactic. In recent elections, Republicans claimed that Democrats Evan Bayh of Indiana, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana each cast the deciding vote when a Democratic Senate passed the Affordable Care Act in 2009.
Losco said the tactic “has proven effective for ginning up base voters and mobilizing them.” Bayh, Feingold and Landrieu lost their elections.
Helmke said Messer can take “the deciding vote” only so far.
“Repetition helps make the point for Messer, but I think most voters realize that Republicans had control and were still unable to deliver on something that only needed 50 votes,” he said about the Senate's repeal try. “I don't think most voters follow the 'inside baseball' dynamics of the voting process – but they do know who is in charge.”
Messer's rivals in the Republican primary election are U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita and former state representative Mike Braun.