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The Disappearing Campaign Issue

Arkansas Democratic Senator Mark Pryor is praising Obamacare in his reelection bid.
Arkansas Democratic Senator Mark Pryor is praising Obamacare in his reelection bid.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Remember the conventional wisdom a few months ago about Obamacare and the 2014 elections: Republicans would hammer Democrats on the law and Democrats would run away from it?

Guess what? That’s not happening.

In Alaska, a red state, two conservative groups have paid seven figures for ads attacking Senator Mark Begich, an embattled Democratic incumbent, but the ads don’t mention Obamacare.

In Arkansas, another deeply red state, Senator Mark Pryor, who’s also a vulnerable Democrat, is now running an ad extolling his vote for the healthcare law.

It’s a feel-good, emotional video in which the current senator sits beside his father, David Pryor, a former senator.

DAVID: When Mark was diagnosed with cancer, we thought we might lose him.

MARK: My family and my faith helped me through the rough times.

DAVID: But you know what? Mark’s insurance company didn’t want to pay for the treatment that ultimately saved his life.

MARK: No one should be fighting an insurance company while you’re fighting for your life. That’s why I helped pass a law that prevents insurance companies from canceling your policy if you get sick, or deny coverage for preexisting conditions.

True, the ad never mentions Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act, but no one in Arkansas is likely to be fooled into thinking Pryor voted only for parts of the bill and not the whole law. The Pryor video represents an attempt by a Democrat in a red state to shift the debate from Republican talking points — which have dominated the discussion for the last four years — to one of the moral reasons for healthcare reform: To protect the sick and vulnerable from abuse by insurance companies.

Pryor’s ad also is an effort to recover the anecdotal war from the GOP, which has long stressed, sometimes falsely and usually with great exaggeration, horror stories of canceled plans and lost coverage by suggesting how the new law will aid many beneficiaries.

Bashing Obamacare was common in just-completed Republican primaries, but indications are that it’s not playing well in the general election. In hotly contested races — which are crucial to control of the Senate — spending on anti-healthcare spots has fallen drastically. Republican candidates such as Thom Tillis in North Carolina and Scott Brown in New Hampshire claim to still favor repeal of Obamacare, while at the same time suggesting that people who obtained insurance under the law will be able to continue to enjoy its benefits, though neither candidate specifies how.

Pryor’s reluctance to use the word “Obamacare” in his ad and Republican suggestions that parts of the law should remain after repeal are part of a long-observed but little-recognized fact: Most parts of Obamacare are far more popular than the entire law. The law’s individual provisions — including creating health insurance exchanges and Medicaid expansion — receive overwhelming majorities in polls, though surveys also show opposition to the law in its entirety.

This disconnect between the law and its provisions stems from Republican hammering during and after passage, from the timidity of Democrats in touting its benefits, and from the botched rollout last year. But the law’s recent success in enrolling the uninsured — and public knowledge of the benefits of the law’s provisions — is changing the dynamic, as Pryor’s ad suggests.

Pryor has a further reason to feel confident in running on Obamacare: Arkansas is the leading state in reducing the proportion of its uninsured, which has dropped from 22.5 percent in 2013 to 12.4 percent this year. Another red state, Kentucky, is second, with a drop of 20.4 percent to 11.9 percent. Arkansas and Kentucky share one important similarity: They are red states with Democratic governors who have promoted Obamacare to help residents gain insurance.

Arkansas and Kentucky suggest that not only will Obamacare cease to be a winning issue for Republicans but that it may well turn out to be a losing cause in the future. Citizens in states that not only have failed to accept Medicaid expansion but in which their governors and legislatures have frustrated the creation of exchanges and blocked access to health care may soon wonder why in some states — blue as well as a few red — voters of similar socio-economic backgrounds have medical insurance while they don’t.

Perhaps not this year, but perhaps in 2016, 2018, and 2020, those voters may express their frustration at the ballot box.

Here’s betting you won’t see many Republicans calling for repeal then.