In Close Races, Even Democrats Who Support Obamacare Won't Name It


Mark Pryor campaign, via YouTube

Obamacare supporters became very excited over the last week or so following the release of a new ad from Sen. Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat facing a difficult reelection bid this November. The spot touted his support for, as he says in the ad, "a law that helps prevent insurance policies from canceling your policy when you get sick, or deny coverage for preexisting conditions."

That law, of course, is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, though Pryor doesn't refer to it by either name in the ad.

Liberal pundits have dismissed the omission as trivial—after all, this is a Democrat in a tight race and a conservative state touting his vote for the president's health law. Given how timid Democrats have been about expressing support for Obamacare, that's a pretty big deal, right? Perhaps Democratic politicians are finally coming around to more open and aggressive support for the law, just as liberal commentators have been urging for months.

I doubt it. Given the history of failed Obamacare messaging efforts, this doesn't seem like that big a deal, and I think the omission of any name for the law is actually quite telling.

Pryor's ad, and the buzz around it, are basically just extension of the argument that health law supporters have made for years: Sure, the law is unpopular, but many of the specific provisions—especially provisions requiring insurers to cover individuals with preexisting conditions—poll quite well.

It's true that those specific provisions poll well. It's been true for years. But the administration and its allies have attempted to capitalize on this since before the law even passed, and it's never translated into popular support. Yes, there are a number of provisions in the law that are and have long been popular. But the public doesn't like the law as a whole, and it's been quite clear and consistent on this matter, despite efforts to build support by pointing to the provisions that more people like. 

Pryor's ad is just an updated version of this familiar approach to Obamacare messaging. It names some popular provisions, but not the law as a whole.

So this isn't some big shift. It's the same old strategy of playing up the popular provisions while playing down or ignoring the law, and its impact, in its entirety.

If anything, Democrats in close races are still generally trying to avoid talking about the law. As The Washington Post notes, "there's little evidence that the hotly debated law is on its way to becoming a central Democratic talking point heading into the fall campaign." 

"Most candidates do not want to be in a situation of running their race on Obamacare," one unnamed Democratic strategist told the Post, noting the health law's low polls. And when Democrats do talk about it, they often make sure to voice support for fixing it.

A few states away from Arkansas, in the panhandle of Florida, for example, Democrat Gwen Graham is challenging conservative incumbent Republican Steven Southerland for his House seat. Thanks to name recognition (her father was governor of Florida), Graham is one of the few Democrats making real headway against a conservative opponent in what increasingly looks like a very strong year for Republicans. She's not exactly running hard on the health law. This week, she launched an ad this week declaring that "Obamacare has got to be changed so it works for North Florida."

Over the past few months, we've seen a similar dynamic in a number of close races. In North Carolina, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, who has voiced support for Obamacare's Medicaid expansion, actually ran an anti-Obamacare ad against her GOP challenger last May. Her support for Obamacare continues to be an issue in the race. Democrat Alison Grimes, who is challenging Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has treaded lightly in her support for the health law, talking about its effects in Kentucky without actually naming it.

Part of the story is the declining salience of Obamacare as a campaign issue. As The New York Times reported this week, there were 530 news releases from legislators mentioning Obamacare last summer. Over the last three months of this year, however, there were just 138. That's to be expected, given its prominence in the news last year. Now that the initial furor has died down, legislators on both sides of the aisle are talking about it less. But that's not a great sign for the law. It just shows that the fight over the issue has ebbed, and opinions about Obamacare are basically settled. Which is why even Democrats who support it won't name it.