Burlington County Times

Will The Savior Of The GOP Health Care Bill Be Vulnerable In 2018?

Burlington County Times — May 6, 2017

By David Levinsky, staff writer

Nov. 6, 2018, may seem like a long way off, but already some would-be voters have the date circled.

Herbet Malamut is one of them. The 62-year-old Southampton resident says he's looking forward to Election Day 2018 to pay back Republican Congressman Tom MacArthur for helping to muscle through a health care reform bill that he fears will make insurance unaffordable for him and millions of Americans.

"To say that I'm very, very angry with him is kind of an understatement," said Malamut, who has a form of cancer and is worried he'll lose his current insurance plan and limit on out-of-pocket expenses.

A lot can still happen between now and next year's midterms, but some political watchers warn that Thursday's House vote approving legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act could wind up haunting New Jersey's Republican members at the ballot box.

"A lot can be forgotten if it's not signed into law. But there's a potential, if it is signed, for a big backlash," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

New Jersey is home to five Republican House members: MacArthur, Frank LoBiondo, Chris Smith, Leonard Lance and Rodney Frelinghuysen.

Among the five, MacArthur, whose 3rd Congressional District encompasses nearly all of Burlington County, may be the most exposed.

The second-term representative not only voted in support of the American Health Care Act on Thursday, but he also authored an amendment credited with reviving the bill from its near-death status after an earlier vote was scuttled due to opposition within the Republican ranks.

MacArthur's efforts helped the GOP cobble together enough votes to narrowly pass the legislation in the House. But it also made him the face of the health care reform effort, essentially putting a bull's eye on his back for the Democrats.

"MacArthur is now a big national target, because his name is literally on the bill," Murray said.

Within minutes after Thursday's vote, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released a statement announcing that MacArthur would be targeted in a new digital ad slamming him for his vote and amendment.

"Kicking 24 million people off their health care insurance, increasing costs, slapping an age tax on folks above 50 and destroying protections for people with pre-existing conditions will go down in infamy as one of the most heartless acts ever passed through Congress," DCCC spokesman Tyler Law said in the announcement.

Other groups such as Action Together New Jersey and New Jersey Citizen Action also condemned MacArthur and Frelinghuysen, a fellow Republican who also voted for the legislation, and vowed to make sure voters remember next year that both supported it.

The Cook Political Report, a Washington-based political publication known for its election prognosticating, included MacArthur's 3rd District and Lance's 7th District among 20 that it reclassified as more competitive in the wake of the health care vote.

MacArthur's seat, previously classified as "solid Republican," was moved to "likely Republican" by the publication, which predicted his role as the architect of the health care compromise would make him a target.

Lance didn't vote for the bill on the House floor, but he did vote to approve its release from the House Energy and Commerce Committee. His district was moved from "likely Republican" to "leans Republican."

For his part, MacArthur has steadfastly said he is not concerned about any political fallout from his efforts.

"I've said from the beginning of this long process, this has to be about people not politics," he said Thursday during remarks at a White House ceremony celebrating the measure's advancement.

MacArthur has also cited some of his personal motivations for taking on a high-profile role in the thorny debate.

His mother died from cancer when he was 4, and he said his father was forced to work three jobs to pay off her medical bills. Insurance also saved his family from owing over $1 million to doctors and hospitals from the care his first daughter, Gracie, required after being born with special needs. She died at age 11.

"I've said many times that this bill is not perfect, but it's an improvement from where it started, and I stand by my efforts to make it better," MacArthur said.

At least one Democrat is already lining up to challenge the incumbent.

Evesham native Andy Kim, a Rhodes scholar who previously advised President Barack Obama and retired Gen. David Petraeus, announced his interest on a Crowdpac fundraising page.

As of Friday, the page indicated Kim had received pledges from over 500 people to donate over $40,000 to his campaign.

"The people of the New Jersey 3rd Congressional District deserve a representative that puts the interests of the constituents first," Kim wrote on the website. "My representative, Tom MacArthur, has become Trump's biggest supporter in New Jersey and is the main author and lead negotiator for Trumpcare 2.0 that jeopardizes care for people with pre-existing conditions, while blatantly protecting the health care plans of Congress from these changes."

Chris Russell, a Republican consultant and spokesman for MacArthur's political campaign, countered that MacArthur has taken a leadership role to fix the Affordable Care Act.

"Congressman MacArthur has emerged as a leader in the fight to fix our broken health care system, lower premiums so people can afford quality health insurance, and protect the most vulnerable so nobody is left behind," Russell said. "The people of Burlington and Ocean counties want a decisive leader and a problem solver, and they have that in Tom MacArthur."

He also fired back at Kim and his former role of advising the Obama administration.

"He was Barack Obama's top ISIS adviser when Obama called ISIS the J.V. team and allowed them to gain strength and terrorize Americans and innocent people all over the world. If he is the candidate, we look forward to that fight in a district that is home to the largest veteran population in the state and one of the largest military bases in the nation," Russell said.

Unseating MacArthur will be no easy task. The former insurance executive invested $5 million of his own money in his first congressional campaign in 2014, when he defeated well-known conservative Steve Lonegan in the GOP primary and Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard in the general election.

Last year, he won re-election over largely unknown Democrat Fred LaVergne by a large margin during a presidential year, when the seat is generally considered the most vulnerable.

And while the district is arguably New Jersey's most competitive on paper, with 149,942 registered Democrats and 139,505 registered Republicans, its congressional seat has traditionally remained in GOP hands. The one exception was in 2008, when Barack Obama won his first presidential election and attracted record numbers of Democrats to the polls.

Maura Collinsgru, a leader with New Jersey Citizen Action, believes the Republican health care overhaul could spark a similar revolt in 2018.

"There's a lot of issues, but health care is so personal," Collinsgru said. "I do think people will not forget it and it will have lasting impact."

Murray isn't so sure. The 18 months between now and the 2018 midterms equate to an eternity in politics, and the American Health Care Act still faces an uncertain future before the Senate.

"Anyone who is predicting how this will play out is making wild guesses," he said. "Having said that, the Democrats smell blood."

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