WASHINGTON - Contempt for the Affordable Care Act - Obamacare - was so central to Sen. Joni Ernst's 2014 election campaign that the Iowa Republican, in a TV ad promising she'd "unload" on the law, pulled out a handgun and fired repeatedly. "Give me a shot," she asked voters.
Six years later, the first-term senator is battling for reelection, and she's holstered her gun.
Ernst is not alone. Earlier this month, she joined fellow Republican Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Dan Sullivan of Alaska - two other would-be assassins of the 10-year-old health care law who are now fighting for their political survival - in breaking with their party to support Obamacare on the Senate floor. They voted with Democrats on a measure opposing a Republican-backed case against the law that's now before the Supreme Court.
As that vote showed, endangered Republicans are frantically trying to pivot away from the "repeal Obamacare" slogans that served them well for much of the last decade. Those are now a liability amid a jump in public support for the health care law.
Candidates also are playing down the long-standing legal challenge initiated by a coalition of Republican-led states that's reached the Supreme Court. And from President Donald Trump on down, they claim to be guardians of Obamacare's most popular provision - a guarantee of insurance coverage for people with preexisting conditions - though that mandate would fall with the rest of the law if the court's conservative majority sides with Republicans.
"Republicans would much rather be talking about something else," said Thomas P. Miller, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "Public opinion on this has changed, and they are stuck with the consequences of saying for years they oppose the Affordable Care Act and not coming up with an alternative."
For Democrats, the turnabout is fair play. After its passage in 2010, Obamacare was their albatross, contributing that year to the party's loss of its House majority, and costing them politically for several more election cycles. As recently as 2016, former President Bill Clinton called the law "the craziest thing in the world" and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton hedged on her support for it.
That began to change in the 2018 midterm election: Democrats recaptured a House majority, and voters' health care concerns were a big factor. Now, in the closing weeks of a 2020 campaign upended by a worldwide pandemic, Democrats are making saving the Affordable Care Act their marquee issue.
Democrats up and down the ballot - from presidential nominee Joe Biden to candidates for Congress, state attorneys general and more - are embracing the health care law, and promising to expand its reach. In the Senate, they've been talking about it incessantly during this week's hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, hoping to benefit in the elections even if they can't block her confirmation. Democratic senators brought poster-sized photos of constituents who would be hurt by repeal of Obamacare, and hammered on Trump's promise that his nominee would help dismantle the law.
"If Republicans are litigating the merits of Obamacare in the final weeks of the election, that's a losing proposition," said Ken Spain, who was spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2010. "Health care was an advantage for Republicans in 2010, but that has been radically reversed."