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Paul Ryan’s agenda has been a much bigger liability for the GOP than Trump’s scandals

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
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House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

President Donald Trump's approval rating is at its lowest point since the inauguration. He and his White House face multiple investigations, including from Congress and the Justice Department. Six in 10 Americans think Trump fired James Comey over the FBI's Russia investigation.

But despite the constant swirl of Trump-related Russia controversies, the early evidence from the campaign trail is that the president's scandals are far from the Republican Party's most serious political vulnerability. Half a dozen political scientists and political organizers on the ground said in interviews that they see one issue galvanizing voters more than any other — health care.

Trump may be increasingly unpopular nationally, but Speaker Paul Ryan's American Health Care Act — which Trump has backed but the conservative vision for which entirely predates his rise — is far more politically toxic. The evidence is mounting in the ongoing congressional campaigns. In the upcoming special elections in Georgia and Montana, Democrats' closing pitches have had far more to do with defending Obamacare than attacking Trump, while the Republicans in those races look to the president for political cover.

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The stakes of the AHCA are immediate and obvious. Though a revised bill hasn't received its final estimates, AHCA would cost an estimated 24 million people their health insurance, according to the Congressional Budget Office. It creates a waiver that would allow states to opt out of key Obamacare rules, like the one banning insurers from charging those with preexisting conditions more. There is a seemingly endless list of provisions that are vulnerable to attack — massive tax cuts for the wealthy; smaller financial benefits for the poor and elderly; weaker protections for children and parents.

"On [former FBI Director James] Comey and Russia, voters see there's a lot of smoke and maybe even some fire; they're yet to see that the fire might burn them," said Jesse Ferguson, a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee official, in an interview. "Whereas on health care, the country knows that repeal will burn them."

In DC, it may look like congressional Republicans are lashed to the sinking Trump ship. But in competitive races across the country, Trump's popularity continues to keep the party's candidates afloat — as their congressional health care plan threatens to bring them down.

Democrats in special elections are running on health care, not Trump

As the two most high-profile national special elections barrel toward their conclusion, Democrats in both races have homed in on Republicans' health care bill.

Rob Quist, the Democrat running to represent Montana's only congressional seat in a special election on Thursday, is closing out his bid by attacking his opponent for supporting the AHCA. Quist's campaign has hit a rough patch over the past month of the campaign, particularly over revelations that he has a 16-year debt and that he was sued by a bank for not repaying a loan, according to the Montana Billings Gazette.

The banjo player has responded to his personal travails by emphasizing the horror of the Republican health care bill. Last week, he hosted a series of "Hands Off Our Health Care" events around the state. His rallies around the state with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) were billed as attempts to rail against the "un-American health care plan." His last ad-buy, "Preexisting," goes after Republicans for ending Affordable Care Act's protections for patients with preexisting conditions:

There's a good reason for Quist to go after AHCA rather than Trump: The president remains popular in Montana, a state he won by 20 points. (Quist's opponent, tech millionaire Greg Gianforte, is hugging Trump about as closely as possible.) The Medicaid expansion under Obamacare covered 70,000 Montanans, and the AHCA is polling in the mid-20s nationally while the approval rating of Obamacare skyrockets. The latest polls suggest Quist is down by about 2 points with only a few days left in the campaign — a far closer number than most observers expected. (The Missoulian reports that AHCA's exact impact on Montanans' health coverage isn't known, but that it would cost an extra $251 million in state money for nobody to lose their insurance.)

Similarly, in Georgia's Sixth Congressional District, Democrat Jon Ossoff made his latest ad buys all about health care. It's a shift from the original focus of his campaign. Originally, Ossoff's ads emphasized themes of fiscal responsibility and encouraging small businesses in Georgia, contrasting his temperament with Trump's.

But polling last month cited by the Washington Post found that Trump's approval rating in the district is 53 percent. By contrast, Ryan's AHCA is polling at about -33 in the district, according to a poll by Lake Research Partners, creating an opening for the Democratic candidate.

That dynamic has been reflected in the candidates' campaigns. Karen Handel, the Republican candidate and Georgia's former secretary of state, has been eager to raise money with Trump and publicly applauded his decision to fire Comey. Ossoff is still trying to channel discontent toward Trump, but he's increasingly attacked Handel over her health care record, including her wildly controversial decision to pull funding from Planned Parenthood while she was running the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

A poll released Monday by Priorities USA put Ossoff up 7 points over Handel.

Trump is masking the Republican Party's weakness, not its strength

Democratic candidates' focus on health care in the special elections may be crucial harbingers of the upcoming 2018 midterms. But they also reflect an unsettled debate from last year's presidential campaign about whether Democrats should attack Trump over his wild and erratic personality, or whether they should home in on the impact of the Republican Party policy agenda that he's supported.

Hillary Clinton chose to emphasize Trump's personality. A study by researchers at Wesleyan found that Clinton's television advertising in the run-up to Election Day had less to do with policy than that of any other presidential candidate in the past four presidential races.

Clinton's defenders have noted that the strategy appeared to be working at the time: Most experts thought she was going to win, so sticking with the personality-based attacks seemed to make sense.

But the first few months of Trump's administration have revealed the extent to which the Republican Party's policy agenda, when forced into implementation, remains a difficult sell. "The Republicans have often been faced with a dilemma that their approach in domestic policy is to support rollbacks of social programs," said Dave Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College. "But there is a clear pattern that there's a political risk in pursuing retrenchment, and Republicans tend to be particularly aware of that risk."

This Republican Congress has not tended to heed those risks. Hopkins noted that what Trump and Congress are attempting to do right now — have one party dramatically cut domestic spending — is essentially unprecedented in modern American history. Richard Nixon had to work with a Democratic Congress. Ronald Reagan left the bulk of the New Deal legacy intact. With the exception of an aborted attempt to privatize Social Security, George W. Bush protected American social welfare programs and — in at least two notable instances, Medicare Part D and No Child Left Behind — sometimes expanded them.

Perhaps if Trump were more popular, he could do a better job defending AHCA and slowing the political headwinds blowing against it. But either way, the Republicans' biggest political challenge stems from the implementation of their own legislative agenda — rather than any tweet-related antics or "drama" emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

"Health care attracts more interest and passion and anxiety than any of the other 'Trump scandals' — people aren't keeping up with the FBI director or the Russians or these other things that Washington is obsessed with," Hopkins said. "Everyone cares about health care and understand how it affects their lives."