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GOP Pollster: Drug Benefit Will Have Little Impact on Midterm Elections

By John Reichard, CQ HealthBeat Editor
September 19, 2006 -- GOP pollster Bill McInturff said Tuesday that he doesn't know whether Democrats will regain control of the House or Senate in the November midterm elections but expressed doubt that the Medicare drug benefit would determine any of the races involved.
McInturff, co-founder of the polling and consulting firm Public Opinion Strategies, said the benefit may be a slight negative for Republican candidates but defied the audience at his speech before the Generic Pharmaceutical Association to name a single Democratic candidate who is making the benefit the centerpiece of his or her campaign.

While some observers speculate that seniors in large numbers could turn against the benefit when they enter the "doughnut hole"—that part of the benefit that requires beneficiaries to pay 100 percent of prescription costs—McInturff said only 4 percent to 7 percent of seniors will fall into that gap this year.

The big issue in the election is Iraq, he said, and Republicans may be in trouble because voters are seeking accountability for the war. They want to know what its purpose is and how the United States will be able to withdraw. Because it is a midterm election, voters won't be particularly focused on whether Democrats offer a better alternative on the war, he suggested. "All they've got to do is say they're ticked off," McInturff said of voters. Midterms allow an opportunity to cast protest votes, whereas presidential elections force dissatisfied voters to take the added step of considering whether challengers really offer a better alternative, he said.

Voters also are unhappy about gas prices and health care costs, he said, adding that when voters are asked what they are personally most worried about, they say the price of health care. These negatives in the "national environment" help Democrats, whom he said have the "wind at their backs" going into the midterms.

But that does not mean they will regain control of either chamber, he said. Democrats are operating on "a very small playing field" and Republicans have far bigger campaign war chests. McInturff said he has worked on many a campaign for challengers who look strong in September but eventually fade because they cannot overcome the advantages that money provides incumbents in the closing weeks of a campaign.

McInturff said Democrats face a much tougher time regaining the House than Republicans did in the 1994 midterm elections that saw a massive shift to the GOP. In 1994, there were 52 open seats and 110 competitive races, compared with 32 open seats and 50 competitive races this year, he said. And for Democrats to net six seats in the Senate is "a long stretch," he said, adding that he doesn't expect it to happen.

If Democrats do win big in November, he predicted they will seek to pass legislation granting Medicare the authority to negotiate drug prices paid for the prescription drug benefit. They also will offer costly plans to cover uninsured children and push for passage of legislation allowing importation of low-cost prescription drugs from abroad, he predicted. Democratic plans to cover the insured would mean new reimbursement pressures on providers and drugmakers, he said.

If Republicans retain their hold on the two chambers, new efforts will be made to enact legislation creating association health plans to lower costs of health care to small businesses, he said. Republicans will feel comfortable pushing for AHPs, health savings account tax breaks, and medical liability changes at the federal level but will see much pressure at the state level to adopt other strategies, McInturff indicated.

If Democrats win in the fall, the political environment in Washington will be "nasty" because of partisan sniping, McInturff predicted. Voters will get fed up with the acrimony, decide which party's ideas they prefer, and tilt strongly to that party in the 2008 election, he predicted.

McInturff opined that Arizona Sen. John McCain is likely to win the GOP presidential nomination while New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is the likely Democratic nominee, with former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner as her running mate. McInturff went one further and predicted McCain will win the election by 5 percentage points.

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