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Republicans Have a Good Map. That Doesn't Mean Obamacare's a Winning Issue.

A theory of the 2014 elections

Paul Ryan: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Oval Office: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Imagine a future midterm election in which Republicans were defending seats not just in Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida but in Washington, California and Connecticut as well.

Without knowing anything else about the race, which party would you bet on to pick up seats in November?

Now add an unpopular, second-term Republican president to the equation. Oh, and this is the future, where the partisan implications of an older midterm electorate have disappeared.

Next imagine that come January, Democrats say their big victory constitutes a mandate to increase the top tax rate to 39.6 percent, which Republicans had unilaterally reduced to 25 percent, and restore a 20 percent capital gains tax and 40 percent top estate tax, which Republicans had eliminated entirely.

To which outgoing President Paul Ryan replies, "Are you crazy? Picking up a Democratic seat in California in no way suggests a liberal zeitgeist is sweeping the nation. You had a good map, and good fundamentals. Congratulations on your victory. But you get nothing."

I think that'd probably be the last word on the issue, even if Democrats ran around whining to reporters about how unfair it was. "But... but we campaigned on it!" If Democrats controlled Congress, maybe they'd send a big soak-the-rich tax increase bill to the Republican president, who'd veto it unreservedly, and that would be the end of that.

Of course, this is basically the story of 2014. Except that in real life the parties are reversed, the issue is health care, not taxation, older midterm electorates are disproportionately Republican, and the states in play aren't disproportionately blue—they're disproportionately red.

It's a ripe year for Republicans, and everyone has known it would be since 2008, when Democrats picked up Senate seats in states like Alaska and held on to others in Louisiana, Arkansas, West Virginia, and Montana.

But Republicans don't want to pick up seats in 2014—perhaps even enough to capture the Senate—only to be met with shrugs from an unimpressed media. "So you won a bunch of Romney states. So what?" Not that the media is naturally disinclined to concoct dubious narratives, but that Republicans want the media to be primed to adopt one narrative in particular: that a GOP victory in November will be synonymous with a mandate to reopen the legislative debate over Obamacare.

To that end, you won't find many GOP operatives willing to confess the existence of any Republican structural advantages this cycle. As long as polls show Republicans poised to win seats, and the slight favorite to capture the Senate, it is because Obamacare is a #trainwreck, and voters are itching to hold Democrats accountable for it.

I'm not saying Republicans wouldn't be running against Obamacare this year if the map were less friendly. The law is really unpopular among Republican voters, and turning out base voters makes winning a midterm a lot easier. But if the map were more balanced between conservative and liberal states, you'd expect Republicans to be offering up more than just unrelenting ACA opposition on the trail. The map and other structural advantages emancipates them from such unpleasantness—they can run against Obamacare with bravado and then cast their victory as evidence that it is failing and the public has rejected it.

That's the Republicans' working theory of 2014. Or at least it was until the ACA experienced an enrollment surge late last month and into April, which at the very least makes their strategy harder to execute. And not just because it makes their overwrought attacks on the ACA seem unmoored from reality, but because it makes it more difficult for them to dismiss the entire Democratic agenda as a distraction.

The Democrats' working theory of 2014 is that they must minimize presidential election drop-off among young people, ethnic minorities, and single women. Get the Obama coalition back to the polls one last time, or at least split the difference between a typical campaign with Obama atop the ticket and a midterm. This explains the party's legislative strategy over the past year and a half. If you can pass a law, do it. If you can't, then at least make it clear who killed it. And to that end, Republicans are in the process of killing immigration reform, equal pay legislation, and workplace discrimination protections for LGBT employees. They will probably add a Voting Rights Act patch, a minimum-wage increase and an Earned Income Tax Credit expansion to that list.

Before last week, though, lingering doubts about Obamacare implementation and enrollment were crowding out tons of other news. At least at a national level, Democrats were having a hell of a time getting the press to focus on the contrast between their agenda and the Republicans' lack of one. Republicans were able to kiss off Democrats' efforts as clumsy misdirection. Yet despite these tremendous disadvantages, Senate Democrats in conservative states are enjoying small-to-sizable leads, according to a recent New York Times/Kaiser Family Foundation poll, and though the Affordable Care Act remains unpopular in these states, their residents would much rather keep and improve the law than repeal it outright.

I think Democrats will have an easier time now. And I think the GOP's Obamacare obsession is going to start looking more and more strained and untenable. We're already seeing signs of that in Senate races in Arkansas, Michigan, New Hampshire, and North Carolina. But I don't think Republicans are going to switch scripts any time soon, both because conservatives won't let them, and for the more fundamental reason that they don't have any other scripts lying around.

And they may not need to. Their map is good! But if Obamacare recedes as an issue, and the projections start looking less auspicious for them, they might start wishing that they hadn't staked everything on a single issue, the success or failure of which rests largely outside of their control.