Kim, who was declared the winner last week while provisional ballots were still being counted, beat the incumbent by a less than 2 percent margin. But Ann Vardeman and other advocates believe his fate was sealed last year when he wrote an amendment to the GOP’s health care bill that garnered the measure enough conservative and moderate support to advance from the House.
Democrat Andy Kim made history during this year’s election when he bested incumbent Republican Tom MacArthur to become only the second Democrat in the last century to win the 3rd Congressional District’s House seat.
But Kim had plenty of help from advocacy groups such as New Jersey Citizen Action and unions like the Communication Workers of America and SEIU 1199 that opposed the Republican effort to repeal and replace the Obama-era Affordable Care Act before mobilizing to oust MacArthur, who garnered national attention for his role in rescuing the legislation from an early death.
“We all fought to save the Affordable Care Act and then we worked to turn that fight into an election issue,” said Ann Vardeman, program director for New Jersey Citizen Action, during a Monday conference call with New Jersey reporters where she touted the independent campaign the groups raged against MacArthur and the important role that the health care issue played in the closely watched race.
Kim, who was declared the winner last week while provisional ballots were still being counted, beat the incumbent by a less than 2 percent margin. But Vardeman and other advocates believe his fate was sealed last year when he wrote an amendment to the GOP’s health care bill that garnered the measure enough conservative and moderate support to advance from the House.
While the amendment mandated that insurers would not be permitted to refuse covering someone with preexisting conditions like diabetes, cancer or heart disease, it would allow states to waive the “Obamacare” restriction against pricing those consumers differently if they failed to maintain continuous coverage, defined as a lapse of 63 days or more in a year.
Opponents called it an attack on protections for people with preexisting conditions, and it would become the centerpiece of the campaigns against MacArthur’s re-election but also Democrat campaigns across the nation.
Even former President Barack Obama himself referenced the issue on the campaign trail this fall.
″(President Donald Trump) says, ‘I’m going to protect your preexisting conditions,’ while his Justice Department is in court right now trying to strike down those protections. That is not spin, that’s not exaggeration, that’s not trying to put a — a positive glow on things, that’s lying,” Obama said during a late October campaign speech in Milwaukee.
Vardeman said MacArthur’s amendment saved the Republican bill and created a voting record on the issue. Even after the bill itself was defeated in the U.S. Senate, the issue would remain front and center with voters and the key to defeating MacArthur and flipping the House to the Democrats.
“If they never actually voted on health care, I think the conversation would have been different. It would have still been about saving the ACA, but (because of the MacArthur Amendment) there was a vote and people had a record,” she said. “The bill was dead and nobody was on record, but Tom MacArthur resurrected it.”
Laura Packard, co-chair of the health care activist group Health Care Voter, agreed that health care was the issue that mattered most for voters.
“The reason (Nevada) Sen. (Dean) Heller will not be a senator next year is due to his waffling on health care,” Packard said.
Union leaders Milly Silva, of SEIU, and Seth Hahn, of CWA, said their members are often on the front lines of the health care and helped rally to defeat MacArthur this past fall.
“They were outraged Tom MacArthur took extraordinary steps to attack health care,” Hahn said.
New Jersey Citizen Action helped organize weekly demonstrations outside of MacArthur’s constituent services offices in Evesham and Toms River and also helped formed coalitions with other groups, including Action Together Burlington County, New Jersey Organizing Project, as well as the NAACP, CWA and SEIU 1199.
The groups canvassed voters and built a campaign centered on MacArthur’s record on health care and the GOP tax overhaul. New Jersey Citizen Action also formed a nonprofit, New Jersey for a Better Future, to advertise against the incumbent on both television and digital web ads.
In a memo released to the news media, the group said its television ads reached more than 170,000 viewers and that its Facebook ads had more than 6 million impressions and its videos had more than 2.3 million views.
The group did not immediately release a dollar amount for its spending on advertising. In the spring when the group was formed, its leaders promised to spend “seven figures” on a campaign “exposing MacArthur’s record of voting against health care and his support of the Trump Tax.”
Outside group spending would wind up being a key factor in the razor-close race. More than $11 million was spent in the district by outside groups, surpassing the $8 million in combined spending by both candidates, according to ProPublica campaign finance tracking.
With the election over and MacArthur unseated, Vardeman promised that the group’s activism on health care would not end.
Four weeks remain in this year’s open enrollment period and New Jersey Citizen Action and other groups plan to continue encouraging residents to sign up to purchase coverage through the federal exchange.
“It’s extraordinarily important that people sign up,” she said.
Vardeman said her group would also press the new Congress to approve legislation to help stabilize the Affordable Care Act and reverse some of the Trump administration’s actions that she believes sabotage the law. She cited a bill penned by longtime New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone, D-6th of Long Branch, that would expand the law’s federal subsidies so more people can afford coverage and boost cost-sharing reduction subsidies that help reduce out-of-pocket costs, such as co-pays and deductibles, for lower-income consumers.
“We focused for so long on saving ACA, we really should focus now on how we can improve it and lower costs,” she said.