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Do Democrats Have A Chance To Win Runoffs With Strong Health Care Message?

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Early voting kicked off this week in Georgia, where there are runoff elections for both U.S. Senate seats. Election Day is January 5, and there's a big difference in how each side is talking about health care. The Democrats are running hard on it; Republicans, not as much. Sam Whitehead at WABE in Atlanta explains.

SAM WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: It's a sunny late November morning in Canton, Ga. Hundreds of voters, many unmasked, park their cars and board large coach buses. It's a short ride to see Vice President Mike Pence stump for Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. Yana De Moraes is here with a friend. She's currently uninsured. After a recent hospital stay, she's been thinking a lot about how expensive health care can be.

YANA DE MORAES: We would like our health care costs lowered so it could be more affordable so you don't get another heart attack, you know, while you're getting a bill.

WHITEHEAD: Barry Brown has Obamacare insurance, which he affords with the help of a federal subsidy.

BARRY BROWN: It sort of works. It's better than nothing. I would like to see an improved health care situation. I don't know what that will be. So maybe they'll mention that today. I'm hoping so.

WHITEHEAD: But that hope was in vain.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

WHITEHEAD: At the rally, Loeffler made only brief mention of her health care plan. Perdue didn't say much on the subject, either, though he did take a shot at Obamacare.

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DAVID PERDUE: Remember a little thing called the Affordable Care Act? You think that was done bipartisan? No, it was done with a supermajority. Can you imagine what they're going to do if they get control of the Senate?

WHITEHEAD: The GOP senators aren't spending much time campaigning on health care, but their Democratic challengers are all over it. Raphael Warnock talked about health care at his first campaign event for the runoff, and so did Jon Ossoff.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JON OSSOFF: This is why these Senate runoffs are so vital.

WHITEHEAD: A small group gathered outside the Georgia Capitol building in early November for Ossoff's event. The Democrats support adding a public insurance option to the Affordable Care Act or resurrecting key parts of the law if the U.S. Supreme Court decides to overturn it.

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OSSOFF: If the Supreme Court strikes down the Affordable Care Act, then it will be up to Congress to decide how to legislate such that preexisting conditions remain covered.

WHITEHEAD: That's a big priority for voter Janel Green. She's got private insurance but is fighting breast cancer for a second time.

JANEL GREEN: I have to worry about whether or not next year in open enrollment that I won't be discriminated against, that I won't have limits that would then potentially end my life.

WHITEHEAD: That's what's driving Herschel Jones to get involved. We met outside an Ossoff campaign office in Atlanta, where Jones had come to pick up a yard sign. He has diabetes and is covered through the VA and says everyone deserves access to health care.

HERSCHEL JONES: It's a main issue because the Affordable Care Act benefits all those individuals who might have preexisting conditions.

WHITEHEAD: Democrats are running so much harder on health care than Republicans because it worked in the general election, says Ken Thorpe, health policy professor at Emory University.

KEN THORPE: The threat of potentially losing health insurance in the midst of this pandemic turned out to be probably the major defining issue in the election.

WHITEHEAD: Thorpe says if Democrats want to win the Senate runoffs, they'll need to pull in even more Independents and motivate base voters to come out again.

THORPE: The health care issue is probably the main motivating factor that's going to get Democrats and Independents to the polls.

WHITEHEAD: No Democrat has ever won a statewide runoff in Georgia. Thorpe says even with the strong health care message, it'll be tough for Ossoff and Warnock to unseat the Republicans. For NPR News, I'm Sam Whitehead in Atlanta.

CORNISH: And this story comes from NPR's reporting partnership with WABE and Kaiser Health News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR AND 9 THEORY SONG, "CHAMELEON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.