The Washington Post

Why a Southern Democrat in a close race is running an Obamacare spot

This post has been updated.

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) has done something unexpected for a Southern politician enmeshed in a very tough reelection fight: doubled down on his support for the Affordable Care Act.

In an ad released this week, Pryor -- locked in a tight race against Republican Tom Cotton, a conservative, Harvard-educated Army veteran -- affirms his support for Obamacare. Appearing with his father, popular former Sen. David Pryor, Mark Pryor recalls his battle with a rare form of cancer.

"Mark's insurance company didn't want to pay for the the treatment that ultimately saved his life," David Pryor said.

Pryor didn't mention the Affordable Care Act by name. But he did say he helped pass a law that prevents insurance companies from canceling policies when one falls sick.

"No one should be fighting an insurance company while you're fighting for your life," he said.

The senator has spent months attempting to portray himself as an independent-minded politician and distance himself from Washington and Obama, who lost by 23 points in Arkansas in 2012.

So why would he run a spot plugging the president's signature policy achievement?

There's two ways to answer that question.

The long-term answer is that the ACA has long had a branding problem. But specific elements of the law -- the provision that bans insurance companies from rejecting individuals with pre-existing conditions, for instance, or the one that allows young people under age 26 to remain on their parents' insurance, or the one Pryor's ad points to -- have always polled well, even when "Obamacare" didn't.

Then there's this year's summer surprise: the fact that the trail dynamic around Obamacare isn't quite shaping up the way many observers quite expected.

It may not be an unalloyed benefit for Democrats to name-drop the law. But critics aren't necessarily seeing the response they'd expected to attacks -- and are slimming their anti-ACA ad budgets accordingly.

Those spots haven't disappeared -- and "Obamacare" still isn't winning any popularity contests. Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, wouldn't even say whether the ad was about Obamacare.

"The ad features Mark's father and is about Mark telling his personal story…his personal experiences battling cancer and fighting the insurance companies," Barasky said in an email. 

Republicans said the spot had no larger significance. “The entirety of ObamaCare remains EXTREMELY unpopular (in fact every single available poll shows that ObamaCare is just as unpopular today as it was in 2010, if not more so)," Brook Hougesen, press secretary for the Republican Senatorial Committee, said in an email.

But the evolving ad strategies on both sides still suggest a shift in perception that's left both parties adjusting their approaches. And that's left an opening for Democrats like Pryor to talk about Obamacare -- even if they never actually mention it by name.

Katie Zezima is a national political correspondent covering the 2016 presidential election. She previously served as a White House correspondent for The Post.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
The Democrats debated Thursday night. Get caught up on the race.
The Post's Chris Cillizza on the Democratic debate...
On Clinton: She poked a series of holes in Sanders's health-care proposal and broadly cast him as someone who talks a big game but simply can't hope to achieve his goals.

On Sanders: If the challenge was to show that he could be a candidate for people other than those who already love him, he didn't make much progress toward that goal. But he did come across as more well-versed on foreign policy than in debates past.
The PBS debate in 3 minutes
We are in vigorous agreement here.
Hillary Clinton, during the PBS Democratic debate, a night in which she and Sanders shared many of the same positions on issues
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the polls as he faces rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz heading into the S.C. GOP primary on Feb. 20.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
Fact Checker
Trump’s claim that his border wall would cost $8 billion
The billionaire's claim is highly dubious. Based on the costs of the Israeli security barrier (which is mostly fence) and the cost of the relatively simple fence already along the U.S.-Mexico border, an $8 billion price tag is simply not credible.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.