WASHINGTON — Kentucky is emerging as the primary battlefield in the war between Republicans and Democrats over President Barack Obama's health care law.
Both the political and practical implications are intensifying after this past Tuesday saw the federal government shut down over the law even as Kentuckians began to sign up for coverage on Kentucky's insurance exchange.
Democrats, anchored by Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, and Republicans, led by U.S. Sens. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell, have in the past week gone all-in on their positions, setting up the ultimate showdown over the law during the six-month enrollment period that started Tuesday.
As the debate moves away from theoretical with flesh-and-blood Kentuckians signing up for the program, the war of words has intensified.
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After waking up on the receiving end of a blistering op-ed co-signed by McConnell and Paul in the Cincinnati Enquirer, Beshear flew to Washington Thursday where he became the face of implementing "Obamacare" in a red state.
Beshear received a warm welcome at a conference hosted by National Journal as he assailed Washington and critics of the Affordable Care Act.
Calling Kentucky "one of the last few places where democracy still works in the United States," Beshear warned that Republicans like McConnell and Paul who say the law will be a train wreck are "on the wrong train."
Ernest Yanarella, chairman of the political science department at the University of Kentucky, said Beshear's uncharacteristic move to lead-cheerleader on the president's law has ensured that the commonwealth is viewed nationally as the health care battleground to watch.
"I really think that the discovery of a spine by Gov. Beshear in the face of McConnell and Paul and Andy Barr has made Kentucky a real battleground," Yanarella said.
Beshear has certainly embraced his role, both in the days leading up to the launch of Kentucky's insurance exchange and each day since. His appearance in Washington drew attention from the national media just as McConnell and Paul jumped into the center spotlight when they were caught on video discussing their public relations strategy for the ongoing shutdown between media appearances Wednesday night.
That incident and other media appearances during the week thrust Paul to the forefront of shutdown coverage. It also appeared to bond Paul and McConnell to each other in ways the two have largely avoided.
The joint editorial, which also ran in The Courier-Journal on Friday, sealed the deal. As far as health care goes, it's McConnell-Paul versus Beshear.
The governor, term-limited and seemingly uninterested in running for federal office, has the least amount to lose.
In Washington, veteran political journalist Ron Brownstein asked the governor if he was concerned about the Kentucky Supreme Court reversing his executive order expanding Medicaid coverage under the federal health law.
"I'll be well down the road by then," Beshear said.
For Paul and McConnell, the stakes are much higher and more immediate. McConnell faces reelection next year in what is widely considered the hottest contest in the nation, while Paul continues to contemplate a run for president in 2016.
Their message that Obamacare hurts Kentucky is directly threatened by the early numbers the governor's office has been touting that show significant interest in the health care options that became available Tuesday. Beshear said nearly 13,000 applications had been completed by late Saturday, and 6,080 individuals or families had enrolled for health care coverage.
Paul told the Herald-Leader Tuesday that he is not concerned his message will be complicated by the addition of enrollees. The health insurance exchange is deeply flawed and too expensive, he said.
"The question was never whether or not it's a good idea for people to have health insurance. It is a good idea to have health insurance," Paul said. "The question is how you're going to pay for it.
Paul's ascension to the national scene was made possible by the health care battle. The senator shocked Washington — and McConnell — when he rode a wave of outrage from Tea Party Republicans to win the GOP primary and the general election in 2010. That wave of outrage got the lion's share of its strength from opposition to the health care law.
Republican and Tea Party disdain for the law needs to persist if Paul hopes to make a White House run, giving him the foundation to compete in early-voting states.
If the law is an enormous success when open enrollment ends six months from now, or at the very least not an abject failure, the futures of Paul and the Tea Party dim significantly.
Such an outcome would also give McConnell, already facing a brutal reelection campaign, another millstone to hang from his neck.
Despite criticisms from primary challenger Matt Bevin that McConnell hasn't been strident enough in his opposition to the health care law, McConnell's stance against the law has been unambiguous. If it doesn't go down in flames, the senate minority leader's path to reelection gets much rockier.
Alison Lundergan Grimes, McConnell's likely Democratic challenger, is the unknown factor, staying largely silent on health care through the week even as her campaign lobbed an endless assault on McConnell for his role in the government shutdown.
Yarmuth, D-Lousiville, and Beshear both told the Herald-Leader this week that Grimes was playing smart politics by not engaging on an issue that could directly tie her to Obama and his dismal approval numbers in the state.
"I think you'll hear more from her as the campaign starts heating up and the election gets closer," Beshear said. "Right now, she's doing what she needs to do, and that's raise money."
Read Sam Youngman's new weekly political column.