Decisive votes could be held this week on the expansion of Medicaid, a key issue for Democrats who control the Legislature, but partisan operatives and lawmakers are already positioning the issue for the upcoming election.

Republicans who oppose the expansion of Medicaid – which operates in Maine as MaineCare – seem confident that they have the votes to block a compromise bill co-sponsored by moderate Republican Sens. Roger Katz of Augusta and Thomas Saviello of Wilton. Their measure was designed to attract moderate Republican support by expanding MaineCare coverage but also imposing a managed care system on the entire program, which serves about 320,000 low-income residents.

Democrats are expected to walk away from the Katz-Saviello bill if it doesn’t gain enough support in early voting to overcome an anticipated veto by Gov. Paul LePage. Democrats would then shift their focus to a bill sponsored by House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, which would expand MaineCare without creating a managed care system. The Eves bill was endorsed Thursday by the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee in a straight party-line vote.

Democrats are not thrilled with the managed care component of the Katz-Saviello bill, which they viewed as a major policy concession.

Either way, the expansion bills face stiff, if not unmovable, opposition. And Democrats appear to know it. On Friday, there wasn’t a peep about Medicaid expansion in the Democrats’ weekly radio address, a platform that would typically be used to build momentum in advance of looming House and Senate votes.

Taxpayer-funded health care for more than 60,000 people and the economic vitality of some of the state’s hospitals is on the line with the upcoming votes. Their fates will also be messaged in legislative and gubernatorial races.

Some Democrats are promising an electoral reckoning for Republicans if expansion doesn’t pass. Lawmakers and operatives have said privately that the issue is ready-made for the campaign, citing enthusiasm in the Democratic base and internal polls that show support from independent voters.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates, backed by ads by Moveon.org and other progressive groups, have slammed Republican governors in Florida, Louisiana, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Texas for not supporting expansion and denying health care to thousands of people.

However, as we’ve seen in Maine, public opinion on Medicaid hinges on how the issue is framed. In other states, Republicans have emphasized Medicaid expansion’s connection with Obamacare, which had a disastrous roll-out.

National Republican pundits are predicting a popular revolt like the one in 2010 – the same year Gov. Paul LePage and Republicans swept the State House – if the health care law continues to falter.

Democrats are worried. Last week, the Obama administration announced that it was further delaying a provision in the law that would have required consumers to replace individual policies that don’t meet Obamacare guidelines. The move was viewed as mostly political, an attempt to help Democrats in midterm races because it would prevent the cancellation of policies, and the accompanying bad press, at the apex of the election season.

Maine Republicans have attached another pejorative to expansion – “welfare” – for the double-whammy: “Obamacare’s welfare expansion.” The belief among Republicans is that a message utilizing one or both of those terms will boost their chances of success in November.

The battle against welfare is already a centerpiece of LePage’s campaign, which has the advantage of playing to the governor’s base of support in his three-way race for re-election with Democrat Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler.

After all, if the governor can blame welfare for the proliferation of invasive green crabs on the Maine coast, as he did during the recent Fishermen’s Forum, then he might be able to take credit for defeating “Obamacare’s welfare expansion” in November.

BIG TENT

There was an ugly Twitter fight on the #mepolitics thread last week between Dan Demeritt, LePage’s former communications director, and David Sorensen, the current communications director for the House Republican Office.

At issue: the official voice for Maine Republicans, apparently.

Demeritt, who writes a column for the Maine Sunday Telegram every other week and is a political consultant, last week wrote that Maine Republicans should fold the debate over new federal emission standards for wood stoves into their candidate platforms.

On Tuesday, the Capitol Ticker blog for the Portland Press Herald noted that the LePage campaign had done just that by reposting on its Facebook page an item from the Maine Republican Party condemning the regulations and trying to link them to the Democratic candidate for governor, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud. (The post said Michaud was taking orders from his “political commander,” President Obama.)

Some folks on Twitter quickly credited Demeritt for the idea, which prompted Sorensen to say doing so was a mistake, that it was an “obvious issue” to push. Demeritt conceded as much, but the discussion quickly turned nasty. Demeritt questioned why Sorensen was picking a fight with him on Twitter, telling him to grow up. Sorensen responded: “You’re an untrustworthy bottom feeder, no credibility or access.” He added that the Press Herald and Maine Public Broadcasting Network should can Demeritt as a Republican pundit.

Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party, jumped in, describing Demeritt as a “liberal GOP” operative appointed by the media. A blogger for the Maine Heritage Policy Center added that going to Demeritt for “conservative opinion is like looking for oranges on an apple tree.”

Ouch.

So what’s behind all the ill will?

It’s a long story, but probably doesn’t help that Demeritt is currently consulting for the Maine Medical Association, which supports Medicaid expansion.

Also, Demeritt ruffled some feathers when he was LePage’s spokesman and there were signs that Republican operatives secretly played a part in forcing him out of the governor’s office in 2011. He’s long suspected it. Since then, he’s tried to carve out a niche as a conservative opinion leader who writes and talks about politics from his perspective. He doesn’t claim to represent the Maine Republican Party. However, there are some Republicans who think he should use his media platforms to amplify the party’s sanctioned views or vacate the position so someone else can.

This desire is not confined to Republicans, by the way; Democrats prefer friendly, uncritical voices in the opinion pages, too.

Democrats just haven’t aired their motives on Twitter.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler