Ever since embattled Dem Senator Mark Pryor went up with a new ad discussing his cancer and touting his vote for the health law as the right thing to do, critics have pointed out that he failed to name the whole law in the spot, so the ad doesn’t really count as a full-throated defense of it.

I think that’s a silly standard. But it does raise an interesting question: Can Democrats in difficult states stand behind the goal of expanding coverage to poor people?

The Pryor ad focuses on the law’s popular consumer protections against insurance industry abuse. But it doesn’t say anything about the state’s version of the Medicaid expansion, which is partly responsible for making Arkansas’ drop in the uninsured rate the steepest in the nation. I don’t think this omission matters. This is still a strong ad that unabashedly touts his vote for the law while focusing on one major pillar of it.

But there’s plenty of evidence that Democrats more broadly — particularly in red states — have shied away from defending the provisions in it that expand coverage to lower-income people. Some embattled Dems — like Mary Landrieu and Kay Hagan — have blasted their opponents for opposing the Medicaid expansion, noting that they are denying hundreds of thousands of people coverage. But we have seen few if any ads on the topic. (That widely-acclaimed pro-ACA ad in the Alaska Senate race focused only on the ban on discrimination against preexisting conditions.) Broadly speaking, the law’s expansion of coverage to the poor has been a topic Dems have been loath to take on.

Take Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky. For months she has refrained from directly engaging the debate over the law, even though the state’s exchange has signed up hundreds of thousands of people, some from one of the poorest and most unhealthy regions in the country. Yet that has now changed, at least a bit. Here’s Grimes at a Kentucky Farm Bureau event:

With over a half-million residents signing up for insurance and the uninsured rate plummeting, Grimes said those Kentuckians should come first.

“Mitch McConnell — if he had his way — he would take us back to the days when just being a woman was a pre-existing condition,” she said. “For the first time ever, because of our governor, 500,000 Kentuckians are able to go to the doctor, kids are getting checkups before school, and many of whom are farm families in rural Kentucky.”

That’s good stuff. But it’s hard to escape the sense that when Dems make this argument, they’re doing so grudgingly. To be sure, it’s a lot easier to defend the consumer protections, since they are popular. But the Medicaid expansion is also popular, even in states where Dems are fighting for their lives. Yet expanding coverage to those who can’t afford it — also a major goal of the law — is treated as deeply perilous ground.

And there are many reasons for that. Polls show many voters, particularly whites, don’t necessarily believe the law’s redistributive effects help them or the country. Obamacare itself is unpopular, partly because of the identity of its chief sponsor. But as Jonathan Cohn explains, opinion on the law is complicated; the law’s individual provisions are popular; and it’s possible that even among voters who dislike that thing called “Obamacare,” Democrats might be able to win the argument over the desirability of universal health coverage.

I’m not claiming Dems should be taking this on more aggressively. I’m just saying it’s dispiriting to see that they have largely decided they can’t.

****************************************************************

* REPUBLICANS WORRY ABOUT JONI ERNST’S VIEWS: National Journal has a good piece digging into the premise of Iowa GOP Senate candidate Joni Ernst’s campaign, which is that her personal brand will carry her to victory despite her actual views and positions on issues:

Just this week, for example, Ernst justified her opposition to raising the minimum wage because the current rate is “great starter wage for many high school students” — even though most minimum wage workers are adults….Democrats have stocked away some controversial statements Ernst made during her primary — like suggesting impeachment should be an option for President Obama, or her comments about states being able to “nullify” federal laws…Some Republicans worry that enough of these comments could sink Ernst’s campaign.

I’d add to these Ernst’s suggestions of an Agenda 21 conspiracy and her claims that she had “reason to believe” there were WMDs in Iraq and that Medicaid recipients “have no personal responsibility” for their health. But her opposition to a federal minimum wage will loom largest.

* ATTENTION SHIFTS TO ALASKA SENATE RACE: Kirk Johnson takes an on-the-ground look at the race between Dem Senator Mark Begich and challenger Dan Sullivan, which is now shifting into high gear, and breaks down the demographics:

Mr. Sullivan will be working to woo libertarians and voters who hate Washington and think its bureaucrats overly restrict development of mineral resources; Mr. Begich will try to attract rural voters and supporters of abortion rights. The urban areas, especially Anchorage, will decide the contest, people in both parties said, with the ability to make a personal connection with voters being the determining factor. The cities have oil industry workers who might lean toward Mr. Sullivan’s more conservative approach, but liberals and newcomers may lean toward Mr. Begich, and there are lots of independents who could go either way.

Two key factors also identified here: TV ads are (supposedly) not particularly persuasive to Alaskans, and deep roots in the state really matter to them (which could help Begich).

* OUTSIDE GROUPS ENTER GEORGIA SENATE RACE: ABC News reports that the pro-abortion rights group EMILY’s List will unleash a $1 million ad buy hitting Georgia GOP Senate candidate David Perdue over his business background. It’s another indication that even if the Republican is favored to win, Dem groups may well invest here, and that the Mitt Romney-fication of Perdue will be central to any hopes of a surprise Dem pickup.

* NO GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN IN SEPTEMBER? Paul Ryan vows in a new interview that House Republicans won’t shut the government down in September when it comes time to fund continuing operations of the government. Let’s hope not. But perhaps House conservatives — who will likely balk at funding the Ex-Im Bank and Obama’s expected expansion of deferred deportation programs – should be sent this memo, too?

* DEMS HIT BILL CASSIDY IN LOUISIANA: The DSCC is up with a $2.5 million buy behind this ad slamming GOP Senate candidate Bill Cassidy for voting against aid to veterans while preserving tax breaks for millionaires. The argument against GOP priorities — as shown in the combination of opposition to various aid programs and support for lower taxes on the rich — is increasingly central in many of the Senate races.

* ERIC HOLDER GOES WHERE OBAMA WON’T: The Post reports on the Attorney General’s trip to Ferguson and his discussions with local residents, and concludes:

Ferguson has been another example of his penchant to go further and say more on racial issues than President Obama is politically willing or able to do, particularly in giving voice to the anger in black communities over racial bias. In the past 12 days, the nation’s first African American attorney general has sounded sharper and more personal notes of frustration and anger than the president….Holder’s presence in the St. Louis suburb showed again his ability, and willingness, to take the debate over race to places the president feels unable to go.

The question now is whether the federal investigation broadens to include the racial implications of the shooting, as some Dems want.

* AND FERGUSON DOESN’T DIVIDE US AS MUCH AS WE THINK: E.J. Dionne obtains new polling on the Ferguson shooting and finds that it doesn’t show us quite as divided along racial lines as we thought:

It should not surprise us that blacks and whites see appalling episodes of this sort somewhat differently, given our nation’s history with racism. But we also ought to notice that empathy does exist across racial lines, and this should give us hope.

What else?

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.