Obamacare Already Top Issue in Senate Race in Arkansas

WASHINGTON - APRIL 26: Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AK) talks with reporters after voting on the US Troop Readiness, Veterans' Health And Iraq Accountability Act at the US Capitol April 26, 2007 in Washington, DC. The Senate voted 51-46 in favor of the emergency appropriations bill which provides $100 billion the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a non-binding timeline for combat troop withdrawal beginning in October 2007. President George W. Bush has promised to veto the bill. 
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Jordain Carney
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Jordain Carney
Oct. 9, 2013, 6:12 p.m.

The latest ad wars between Re­pub­lic­ans and Sen. Mark Pry­or, D-Ark., provide a pre­view of the driv­ing forces in a key 2014 Sen­ate race and demon­strate how the GOP can use the gov­ern­ment shut­down against red-state Sen­ate Demo­crats up for reelec­tion.

Pry­or’s most likely Re­pub­lic­an chal­lenger, Rep. Tom Cot­ton, launched his first TV ad la­beling the two-term sen­at­or “the de­cid­ing vote” on the Af­ford­able Care Act. It is a fa­mil­i­ar line to voters in Arkan­sas, where then-Sen. Blanche Lin­coln lost her 2010 reelec­tion bid by more than 20 per­cent­age points after be­ing tagged as cru­cial to the le­gis­la­tion’s pas­sage. And Re­pub­lic­ans are bet­ting that put­ting Obama­care at the fore­front of the midterm elec­tions will help them topple a few vul­ner­able Demo­crats like Pry­or.

“It ab­so­lutely has to be,” said Keith Emis, a GOP con­sult­ant in the state, when asked if the health care law would be the top is­sue in the race. “It’s the biggest is­sue fa­cing the coun­try. It’s the biggest is­sue in people’s per­son­al lives.” He ar­gued that Obama­care is a “pois­on pill” for Arkan­sas Demo­crats.

Brad Dayspring, com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or for the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee, said the Af­ford­able Care Act will be even more im­port­ant in 2014 than in 2010, a wave year for Re­pub­lic­ans na­tion­ally and in Arkan­sas. “This is go­ing to be a ref­er­en­dum on how this has taken hold and taken shape,” he said.

But Demo­crats are push­ing back on the no­tion that the Af­ford­able Care Act will be at the fore­front of the elec­tion, with state Demo­crats and pun­dits bludgeon­ing Cot­ton’s ad. Pry­or’s cam­paign re­spon­ded with a TV ad of its own, call­ing Cot­ton “reck­less,” play­ing up his ties to Wash­ing­ton, and sug­gest­ing that he missed votes on the gov­ern­ment shut­down to raise money for his cam­paign.

It is a fa­mil­i­ar at­tack from the Pry­or cam­paign against the fresh­man law­maker. “It takes real ar­rog­ance for Con­gress­man Cot­ton to as­sume that Arkansans will look past his reck­less votes to kill the farm bill, cut Medi­care and So­cial Se­cur­ity, and end af­ford­able stu­dent loans, to name just a few,” Pry­or spokes­man Erik Dorey said.

Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ant Mi­chael Cook said the ads are a sign of things to come in the elec­tion, and cred­ited Pry­or’s cam­paign with not miss­ing an op­por­tun­ity to cri­ti­cize Cot­ton’s policies. “Right now con­ven­tion­al wis­dom is that Barack Obama and Obama­care are un­pop­u­lar in Arkan­sas, there­fore the Sen­ate race is over…. It’s nev­er that easy for Arkan­sas,” he said.

Cot­ton’s ad also ap­pears to be the first to use gov­ern­ment-shut­down votes against a Demo­crat, cit­ing Pry­or’s vote to con­tin­ue in­sur­ance sub­sidies for mem­bers of Con­gress and staffers. Dayspring said it is “one ef­fect­ive way” for Re­pub­lic­ans run­ning against one of a hand­ful of red-state Demo­crats to tie the Af­ford­able Care Act to the shut­down.

Justin Brasell, Cot­ton’s cam­paign man­ager, said the ad is the first ex­ample of how Cot­ton will tie Pry­or to Obama and his “rad­ic­al agenda” throughout the cam­paign. And it will have help from out­side groups, with the Club for Growth re­leas­ing a TV ad along that vein on Wed­nes­day.

The round of ads — com­ing a little more than a year be­fore the elec­tion — also un­der­score the shift in the Arkan­sas polit­ic­al cli­mate since Pry­or’s 2008 reelec­tion bid, dur­ing which the Re­pub­lic­ans failed to put up a can­did­ate. Al­though Na­tion­al Journ­al ranked him 51st on the lib­er­al score­card based on his 2012 votes, the ques­tion for the com­pet­it­ive midterm elec­tion is wheth­er Pry­or is too lib­er­al for an in­creas­ingly red Arkan­sas.

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