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Republicans seeking to unseat the U.S. Senate incumbent in North Carolina have cut in half the portion of their top issue ads citing Obamacare, a sign that the party's favorite attack against Democrats is losing its punch.
The shift -- also taking place in competitive states such as Arkansas and Louisiana -- shows Republicans are easing off their strategy of criticizing Democrats over the Affordable Care Act now that many Americans are benefiting from the law and the measure is unlikely to be repealed.
"The Republican Party is realizing you can't really hang your hat on it," said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University. "It just isn't the kind of issue it was."
The party had been counting on anti-Obamacare sentiment to spur Republican turnout in its quest for a U.S. Senate majority, just as the issue did when the party took the House in 2010. This election is the first since the law was fully implemented.
Now, Republicans are seeking a new winning formula, with the midterm election less than three months away. Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who has advised U.S. Senate candidates including Marco Rubio of Florida, said the party is pausing to reframe the ads by tying the health law to the economy and jobs, the top concerns for most Americans.
"Obamacare will not be the most important issue," and Republicans will have to "target people very directly" with their messages, said Mr. Ayres, who co-wrote a memo this month for outside spending groups such as Crossroads GPS and the American Action Network. The memo came after Mr. Ayres tested 57 possible avenues of attack.
Mr. Ayres said another round of health-care ads may drop next month when premium increases take effect after state regulators finish negotiating with insurers on 2015 rates, he said.
"Obamacare remains of serious concern," his memo said, "garnering significant opposition among Republicans and widespread criticism among independents, who are suspicious of the law's Washington-driven approach."
Still, the party's experience across the country shows that Republicans can't count on the issue to motivate independent voters they need to oust Democrats in Arkansas, Louisiana and Alaska. And in North Carolina, the ads being run against Senator Kay Hagan also underline the limits of the health-care law as a political topic.
Republicans have accused Hagan of casting the deciding vote on the law, when it passed in 2010 and became President Barack Obama's biggest legislative initiative. Yet even with more than $4 million in negative ads aimed at the law this year, Ms. Hagan is in a statistical tie with her Republican challenger, Thom Tillis, in recent polls.
In April, anti-Obamacare advertising dwarfed all other spots in North Carolina. It accounted for 3,061, or 54%, of the 5,704 top five issue ads in North Carolina, according to Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group. By July, the numbers had reversed, with anti-Obamacare ads accounting for 971, or 27%, of the top issue ads, and the budget, government spending, jobs and unemployment accounting for 2,608, or 72%, of such ads, CMAG data show.
"It is a recognition that there's more going on in this state and also nationally than just frustration over Obamacare," said Jordan Shaw, Mr. Tillis's campaign manager. "We have never had an approach to make this campaign all about the Affordable Care Act. You can't have a conversation about Obamacare without talking about its impact on the economy."
The Republican approach, long defined by a "repeal and replace" mantra, is also challenged by a policy void, said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "You can't really repeal it without creating a mess," she said, "and the problem is they're not entirely sure what to replace it with."
In another reflection of the party's efforts to put its campaign against the health law in a broader context, the House voted last month to sue Obama over its implementation. House Republicans said the president exceeded his constitutional powers in delaying one of the measure's central requirements on his own, without a vote of Congress.
The situation is much the same in Arkansas, where Mark Pryor is trying to keep his Senate seat, and Louisiana, where Mary Landrieu is in a tight race for a fourth term. The health law was just about the only issue on the air in Louisiana in April, according to CMAG. By July, it had dropped to 41% of the top five issue ads, and in Arkansas just 23%.
The ads have diminished as insurance coverage has expanded in North Carolina. About 581,000 people in the state had signed up for private plans under the law by April, 54% of the potential market, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit research group.
Nationwide, Obamacare has exceeded enrollment projections since March as its troubled website has been fixed. Premiums in the insurance marketplaces are expected to increase only modestly in most states, and the percentage of uninsured Americans has dropped significantly, said Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation.
"When they righted the ship, it no longer was as effective a weapon to use to hit Democrats over the head with," he said.
The dialing down of the Obamacare offensive coincides with the public's relative lack of attention to the issue.
Just 5% of Americans identified health care as the most important problem facing the U.S., after the economy and jobs at 22% and immigration at 13%, in a July 29-Aug. 4 CBS News poll. In November 2010 -- at the last midterm election -- a CBS survey ranked health care as the second-most important issue, at 17%, after unemployment and jobs.
The ad that has run the most in North Carolina, sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, an outside spending group founded by the billionaire Koch Brothers, proclaims that millions of Americans have lost insurance, can't see their own doctors and are "paying more and getting less."
Another features a self-employed Chapel Hill woman named Sheila Salter who says her policy was canceled and that she'll be paying $4,500 a year more for insurance.
The challenge for Republicans is there may not be enough people losing coverage who can relate to the broadcast messages, to move the public-opinion needle.
According to a Gallup survey this month, the rate of uninsured people has dropped in all except five states. Two critical states, Arkansas and Kentucky, had the biggest declines. In Arkansas, the rate of people without health insurance fell from 22.5% in 2013 to 12.4% in mid-2014.
Further, recent survey data show the number of people affected by canceled health-care policies was about 1.9 million nationally, less than the 4.8 million often cited in the run-up to the health program's launch last year, according to the journal Health Affairs.
According to the memo by Mr. Ayres, the Republican pollster, arguments against Obamacare that resonate most with independent voters are economic. These include the law's cost to taxpayers; concern that it discourages some employers from hiring full-time workers, and that it will lead to higher premiums and co- payments for some in the private insurance market.
The Republican messages on Obamacare and other issues have "become more diluted" now that it is the law of the land, said Elizabeth Wilner, CMAG's vice president. "There is more material to use for messaging but they're not sure which one works best."