There’s been a lot of controversy throughout the year over the relevance and significance of Republican attacks on the Affordable Care Act, which most observers would agree faded from the overriding role it initially played in GOP attacks on Democratic congressional incumbents. But as Jill Lawrence notes at the National Memo, what’s changed is not so much the volume of attacks on Obamacare but rather Democratic self-confidence in defending the actual policies underlying the Affordable Care Act.

Though they aren’t making ads to heap praise on Obamacare, Democratic Senate candidates do know how to defend it in debates and on the trail. Iowa’s Bruce Braley talks about his nephew who, because of the ACA, will never have to worry about becoming uninsurable due to his “pre-existing condition” of having survived liver cancer at age 2. Alison Lundergan Grimes talks about more than a half million Kentuckians who are “for the first time ever” filling prescriptions, seeing doctors and getting checkups. “I will not be the senator who rips that insurance from their hands,” she says.

Meanwhile, says Lawrence, Republican attacks on Obamacare–treated as self-evidently a terrible thing–appear to be base-motivating devices rather than arguments on the merits.

Why does this matter? It indicates that once the election is over Republican interest in actually “repealing and replacing” Obamacare will abate, in no small part because GOPers have yet to come up with a “replacement” plan they can agree upon. Commenting on Lawrence’s analysis, Greg Sargent sees the same shift in the dynamics:

I’m not claiming the law was a plus for Democrats. It’s probably still a net negative. Democrats did not campaign on it as a major achievement, as some urged. But they have grown a bit more confident in defending the actual policy accomplishments the Affordable Care Act represents. Meanwhile, Republicans have retreated to a place where the word “Obamacare” has essentially become a catch-all to represent everything the GOP base knows they hate about Obama and everything independents find disappointing about the economy and overall course of the country. All of which is to say that while “Obamacare” will remain unpopular for the foreseeable future, whoever wins these races, the outcomes probably won’t have much to do with the actual real-world impact of the law either way.

So in an election that’s not going to produce much if any “mandate” for the winners, one very certain thing is that it won’t give Republicans permission–or even motivation–to bring down the great white whale of Obamacare. But as always, they aren’t going to admit that on the record.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.