Republicans have been criticizing the federal health care law for years, and Democrats have been on the defensive. But as the 2014 election approaches, Democrats are starting to push back.
They now say the Affordable Care Act is making a positive difference in people's lives and that Republican efforts to repeal it will take health insurance away from thousands of Minnesotans.
Views on the law are likely to get lots of airtime up to Election Day. On Thursday, the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, a group working to help Republicans defeat DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, announced it will air a TV ad linking Dayton to MNsure, Minnesota's online health care exchange.
But after taking some early lumps on MNsure — the rollout of the state website led to botched applications and the resignation of MNsure's executive director in December — Democrats are becoming more aggressive about promoting what they say are the program's benefits.
"I think if the Republicans want to make this an issue, they're going to do so at their own peril," said DFL Party Chair Ken Martin.
Democrats aren't going to shy away from the Affordable Care Act, he added. He expects DFL candidates to campaign on it.
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"I would welcome a debate between Republicans and the DFL on health care in this state," Martin said. "I think we have the right plan. Hundreds of thousands of people now have health insurance that didn't before."
In recent weeks, Democrats have ended their self-imposed silence on the law and started campaigning on it. Last week, 8th District DFL Rep. Rick Nolan applauded the Affordable Care Act as he kicked off his campaign, praising the law for "making insurance, affordable insurance, available for people with preexisting conditions."
Mike Obermueller, who is challenging Republican Rep. John Kline in Minnesota's 2nd District, released a video ad recently criticizing Kline for voting to repeal the law and warning that "if Congress repeals ObamaCare, insurance companies would go back to charging whatever they want."
A University of Minnesota study released this week found the number of uninsured Minnesotans has fallen by nearly 41 percent since the fall. That has Dayton and DFL Sen. Al Franken saying they now intend to campaign on the law too.
Dayton called the outcome remarkable.
"To me, it really confirms the wisdom of the Affordable Care Act and MNsure's part in it," he said. "People who have been knocking this the whole time really now need to look at the facts that it has been tremendously successful and it's now going to get better."
Even though the DFL message has changed, Republicans say they will keep up their criticism.
"People who think this is going to be a winning issue are either deluding themselves or thinking, 'We're stuck with it, we better put the best face on it that we can,'" said state Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska.
Hoppe, one of the fiercest critics of the health care law in the Minnesota Legislature, is also skeptical of the 41 percent drop in uninsured reported by the U researchers.
The Affordable Care Act still has many problems, including people losing their existing coverage and worries that health insurance costs will rise next year, he said. "I just think that for the overwhelming number of Americans and Minnesotans, the Affordable Care Act is going to wind up not being a good thing."
Democrats counter that Republicans aren't offering any alternatives and believe voters will prefer the existing system over any effort to roll back coverage or repeal the law entirely.
MPR News' Brett Neely and Dan Kraker contributed to this report.