What’s the politics of Poliquin’s vote against repealing Obamacare?

Rep. Bruce Poliquin

Rep. Bruce Poliquin

I was surprised and pleased that newly elected Republican Congressman Bruce Poliquin was one of three Republicans to vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act.

Pleased, because while the ACA is imperfect, it is doing real good by lowering the number of people without health coverage while holding down premiums and costing less than initially predicted. Surprised, because Poliquin had talked about repealing and replacing it.

During the election, Poliquin’s campaign webpage on health care started with these words in bold:

End Obamacare and Replace with Free Market Solution to Improve Health Care

Poliquin’s website then went on list the standard set of Republican points like selling insurance across state lines and broadening health savings accounts and repealing the medical equipment tax.

Those clearly wouldn’t cover as many people as the ACA. In addition, the ACA’s insurance marketplaces with subsidies were conceived by conservatives and adopted by then-Gov. Romney as a free market solution.

In explaining his vote, Poliquin issued a statement saying he opposed Obamacare but did not want to leave tens of thousands of Mainers in the lurch, without health coverage. He would vote to repeal the law once there was an alternative that would allow continuity of coverage.

What’s the politics of this decision?

Given that Bruce Poliquin is an ambitious politician who has had an aggressive public relations stance for quite a while, and who put a good deal of his own money in the 2014 campaign, surely he thinks his approach makes sense in political terms.

Poliquin must not think this vote is a career killer. And that goes the same for the other two Republicans who voted against repeal. What do they and he have in common?

Regarding this vote, Politico wrote:

[I]t was the three dissenters who attracted the real attention late Tuesday afternoon: John Katko of New York, Bruce Poliquin of Maine and Robert Dold of Illinois. All are in seats held last term by Democrats and likely to be contested hard in 2016.

This suggests that Poliquin and the others think that taking a hard-line stance against the ACA would hurt them in these competitive districts formerly represented by Democrats.

In some ways, that shouldn’t be surprising.

As the latest Kaiser tracking poll shows, only 32% nationally want to repeal the law outright.

8687-figure-5

We don’t have polling from the second congressional district, but it’s likely views about repeal aren’t far from that paltry 32%.

It’s also pretty likely that the district’s Republicans would like to see the law repealed. After all, the national Kaiser data found 61% of Republicans supporting repeal.

And there is real anger from some Republicans, which I’ve seen in comments and on social media. They’re calling him a RINO. They’re comparing him to Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, the moderate Republicans who are very popular in the general electorate but not among strong conservatives.

Given that those sorts of voters tend to show up in party primaries, it would seem like Mr. Poliquin has taken a political risk. Some of these voters are already angry at Poliquin for voting for John Boehner for Speaker of the House.

Poliquin may think he maintain support from those voters once they see all his votes. After all, he will have plenty of opportunity to vote against Obamacare again, if Republicans ever come up with the alternative they’ve promised for years to produce.

And Poliquin will definitely have a lot of money for his re-election bid. He has plenty of his own money and, I predict, will be a champion fundraiser. Because he is on the committee overseeing banks and financial institutions, since he opposed much in the way of regulating them, he’ll be able to raise a lot of money from those sectors.

To face primary problems, he’d need a credible, well-funded primary opponent who provided a clear contrast. At this point, it’s impossible to say if one will emerge.

But Poliquin is helped by the fact that, not only is there no Republican alternative to the ACA, but that’s recognized by all political groups — not only Democrats, but also independents and Republicans.

Here’s what the latest Kaiser tracking poll found:

8687-figure-7This doesn’t solve his potential political problem with his primary electorate, but it does put him in better stead with voters as a whole.

And since any credible alternative is rather unlikely after years of Republicans being unable to produce one, perhaps its absence can help Poliquin convince Republican primary voters that he was right to vote against repeal.

It’s also possible Republicans will put forth a plan that’s not credible by normal policy standards, that is, it won’t provide anywhere near the coverage, cost containment and regulations on insurance companies contained in the ACA. Such a plan could look like what Poliquin presented on his campaign webpage and voting for it wouldn’t be good for people who were helped by the ACA but it would enable Poliquin to say he’s kept his promise.

If such an alternative actually was signed into the law, many people in the congressional district would lose health care and stories about them would appear in the media. That would hurt Poliquin in the general electorate.

But we all know that such an alternative won’t be signed into law by Obama. He would veto it if it passed (and it’s unlikely it would pass in the Senate) and the Congress wouldn’t be able to override it. In that sense, all these votes are just kabuki, signals to the base in particular.

So Poliquin, like any number of politicians, has to navigate between his primary and general election electorates.

Where it gets real is if an anti-ACA president is elected, although the complex politics influencing Poliquin right now suggest how tough that’s likely to be in 2016.

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.