Bad news for Obamacare haters: In Arkansas, Dems go on offense on ACA

Arkansas' Mark Pryor releases an ad promoting the Affordable Care Act, upending the GOP's anti-Obamacare narrative

Published August 21, 2014 11:43AM (EDT)

Marsha Blackburn, Ted Cruz                  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Photo montage by Salon)
Marsha Blackburn, Ted Cruz (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Photo montage by Salon)

This week’s news that Republicans in competitive states have significantly scaled back their ad spending attacking the Affordable Care Act offered a fairly strong indicator that the politics of the ACA have shifted. Conservatives and the GOP were brimming with confidence during the health law’s rollout that it would sink Democrats in November, but then the law started actually working and they had to recalibrate their opposition. Now we’re seeing yet another indicator of that shift: a red-state Democrat going on the air in support of Obamacare.

Arkansas’s Mark Pryor just released an ad telling his own personal story of dealing with cancer and touting his efforts to help “pass a law that prevents insurance companies from canceling your policy if you get sick, or deny coverage for preexisting conditions.” That law, of course, is the Affordable Care Act, which he never mentions by any of its many names. So yes, he’s campaigning on healthcare reform, but not “Obamacare.”

Democratic strategists and left-leaning pundits have been urging Democratic candidates to fight back more aggressively on Obamacare for months now. Pryor’s ad is actually a continuation of a trend in which Democrats in close races, while not wholeheartedly backing “Obamacare,” have been touting the more popular aspects of the law. And it could help to shake up the race, in which Republican Rep. Tom Cotton has taken small but consistent lead in the polls.

On a basic political level, cutting an ad like this makes sense. Polls have shown that while people hate “Obamacare,” they’re more supportive of the “Affordable Care Act.” Keeping the unpopular president’s name out of your support for healthcare reform helps make it more palatable. And Pryor cannot credibly distance himself from the Affordable Care Act, even if he wanted to. He voted for it, he said it was a good vote – if he tried going in the opposite direction he’d come off as a flip-flopper or a flake. So it makes more sense to give the law, if not a giant bear hug, then at least an awkward high-five-turned-fist-bump.

And as Greg Sargent points out, ads like these remind people that healthcare isn’t just a political game: “The spot represents an effort to shift the debate over the law away from the land of GOP talking points where it has resided so long — in this and so many other Senate races — and back to one of the fundamental moral imperatives driving health reform, i.e., protecting the sick and vulnerable from insurance industry abuse.” It also makes clear that there are costs to repealing the Affordable Care Act, particularly when the pro-repeal camp can’t articulate what would happen after the law is undone.

There’s an argument to be made, though, that Pryor should go in for more of a bear hug. From the start, Arkansas has been an unlikely Obamacare success story; it’s a deep-red state that embraced the law. The Democratic governor worked with the Republican Legislature to craft the “private option” compromise proposal that allowed the state to expand Medicaid.

And it worked. Gallup released data earlier this month tracking change in the uninsurance rate in each state over the past year. The state with the highest drop? Arkansas, which went from 22.5 percent uninsured to 12.4. (Kentucky, Colorado and West Virginia – all states with Senate races this year – were also in the top six.) At the very least, Pryor might want to consider folding the Medicaid expansion into his on-air embrace of Obamacare – over 170,000 Arkansans enrolled in the program, comprising roughly 75 percent of the estimated eligible population. Tom Cotton, when asked what the fate of the “private option” would be should the law be repealed, tends to dance around the issue and spout noncommittal gibberish.

Of course, this all assumes that anyone at this point can be swayed one way or another on the Affordable Care Act. Public opinion of the law has remained basically static even in the face of an onslaught of negative advertising. The most recent survey I could find taking the Arkansas public’s temperature on the ACA was a Republican poll from June, which put “Obama-care’s” approval rating at 30 percent. That was little changed from the 27 percent rating it got four months earlier, or the 28 percent rating it got four months before that.

Still, Pryor’s ad marks yet another departure from the narrative fixed in place months ago that the ACA would be “total poison across the country,” in the words of Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus. And it could be a sign to other Democrats that it’s time to start being more aggressive in defending the law’s benefits and pressing repeal-happy Republicans on what their plans are for the millions people who are newly insured under Obamacare.

By Simon Maloy

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