House foe of health overhaul still top GOP target

Associated Press
This photo taken Dec. 11, 2013 shows Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., speaking with his chief of constituent services, Vivian Lipford, in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington. McIntyre is the only member of his party in the House to vote consistently against President Barack Obama’s troubled health care law. But that might not be enough to help the North Carolina Democrat survive his reelection fight in 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Listen carefully when Republicans say they can blame almost every House Democrat for the flaws of the health care overhaul. Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., is the exception.

He's never voted in favor of President Barack Obama's signature health care law. It's a key reason the nine-term Democrat is still in Congress. It might be enough in 2014, although he barely won last year. In a district redrawn by Republicans for Republicans, McIntyre is the GOP's top Democratic target in the battle for control of the House.

Instead of Obama at the top of the ticket as he was in 2012, the state's marquee race next year is Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan's battle for re-election.

"And that's going to be all about Obamacare," said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. "It's going to take a tremendous amount of money to go out and try to convince Republicans (that) any Democrat in Washington is helpful as it relates to eliminating the Affordable Care Act."

If Burr is right, then the political perils of "Obamacare" are so potent that there is no immunity for any lawmaker of the president's party, even for Democrats like McIntyre and recently, Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, who have voted for its repeal. Each man squeaked to re-election in 2012 by a few hundred votes.

Last week, Matheson announced he will not run for re-election. That leaves McIntyre as the only survivor among conservative House Democrats seeking re-election in 2014 who can say he told us so about the national health care law. His biggest problem may be that he remains a member of the president's party.

"In the South, Obamacare is not the only issue. They have very strong feelings about the president," said Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health. "There are questions about his (Obama's) honesty and integrity. ...There's a growing antagonism toward the president. That's going to be the toughest thing for him (McIntyre) to escape."

Voters hold Obama in low regard in increasingly personal terms following the disastrous rollout of the website for enrolling for insurance coverage. Democrats, even Obama's allies, have publicly said they'll deal more cautiously with him now. Americans view Obama similarly: A clear majority of adults, 56 percent, say "honest" does not describe Obama well, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll. That's worse than his 52 percent rating in an October poll.

Promising Americans they could keep their health insurance only to see 4.2 million policies canceled under the law may have reversed political gains Democrats thought they had made from the partial government shutdown, for which the nation largely blamed Republicans. Now, many Democrats see the 2014 election as less about gaining the 17 House seats the party needs to win the majority. It's more about not losing the seats they have.

McIntyre's is among the most vulnerable.

That's why the 57-year-old scion of a prominent Lumberton, N.C., family is quick to list his conservative bona fides, starting with his opposition to the president's health care law. McIntyre, a lawyer, said his impression back in 2009 was that the law would place too much of a burden on doctors and hospitals. Recent layoffs at two area hospitals vindicate the position, he says.

Were it not for his opposition to the health care overhaul, McIntyre might well be back in private practice right now. He acknowledges that possibility — in 2012, McIntyre bested GOP rival David Rouzer by only 654 votes, the closest margin of any House race in the nation. Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney defeated Obama in McIntyre's district by 19 percentage points.

The health care law, McIntyre said, was "a litmus test for some people and for others it was other things" that helped them decide how to vote. Preserving jobs in his district was his top concern at the time, he added. "Ultimately, it was not about whether it was a Democratic or Republican idea."

McIntyre has ridden the centrist rail on a wide array of issues, bucking his party by voting against a cap-and-trade bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and against repealing the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy barring openly gay service members. This month, McIntyre voted against the bipartisan budget that was supported by most House Democrats.

His opposition to the health care law has drawn the most attention. He says local Democrats "censured" him in a news release. It's part of the reason he's drawn a longshot primary challenger this time in county commissioner Jonathan Barfield, a realtor whose campaign motto is "time for a change," and whose website states plainly: "I am a strong supporter of the health care act."

The 2010 redistricting by North Carolina's Republican-held legislature tells much about McIntyre's struggle. The GOP carved his home base of Lumberton out of the 7th district, replacing it with Republican-friendly areas. McIntyre's winning margin dropped from a high of 91 percent of the vote in 1998 through the 70s to a winning percentage of 54 percent in the tea party-driven wave of 2010. Then came redistricting and last year's election. It took three weeks after the polls closed for McIntyre to be declared the winner, barely.

A rematch against Rouzer looms next year. Neither candidate had raised much campaign cash through November.

McIntyre knows he's vulnerable, however vindicated he may feel by the law's botched rollout and Obama's apology to the nation.

His most potent weapon is his robust constituent service, a strength acknowledged by even Burr. But McIntyre is aware he's got many constituents in his newly drawn district who may not know him.

"I'm a centrist and I'll continue to be a centrist," McIntyre said. "People know my heart is in my district."

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