Arkansas Republicans may be about to undercut their strongest argument for defeating Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).
But the Republican-controlled state legislature may soon pass a state law that accepts a key portion of the national health law and use money from the program to help low-income Arkansas residents buy healthcare on state exchanges.
The plan isn't a done deal yet — but Arkansas Republican leaders, who are supporting the compromise plan, are in a tough spot.
If party leaders do pass the plan, it gives Pryor some cover to argue that the healthcare plan is working.
But if they can't find enough support to pass the plan, rural hospitals in the state could suffer.
“It's Republicans driving this plan, and politically that may give Pryor some cover on the federal healthcare law because they're basically using it,” said Roby Brock, the politics editor of the nonpartisan news site talkbusiness.net.
“How they attack him on that will be curious. I think it weakens their hand on bashing him on ObamaCare — he can now say, 'If it's so bad why are you taking advantage of it?'”
Pryor ran unopposed by a Republican in his 2008 reelection.
Republicans are already attacking the second-term senator on his vote for the law, which remains exceedingly unpopular in the conservative state.
The fiscally conservative Club for Growth is running ads tying him to Obama that point out he is the “only Arkansan in Congress today who voted for ObamaCare.”
The National Republican Senatorial Committee asked in a Friday release if Pryor “will embrace the tax hikes, mandates, fees, penalties, bureaucracy, layoffs, patient frustrations and premium increases he so vehemently opposes” when the law goes into effect next year.
Arkansas Republicans say state lawmakers are simply trying to turn lemons into lemonade by considering whether to accept parts of ObamaCare. They argue the law will be toxic for Pryor no matter what the legislature does.
“It's going to be an uphill battle for him — the people of Arkansas didn't want ObamaCare and didn't vote for it,” said Alice Stewart, a GOP strategist who’s worked on a number of presidential campaigns.
Stewart helped the NRSC to defeat Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) in 2010 by hammering her on her vote for the law, and predicted the same attacks will work on Pryor.
“Pryor will have some questions to answer. Republicans [in the legislature] are just trying to clean up after the mess he and Blanche Lincoln made,” she said.
Pryor’s office declined to weigh in on the politics of the current legislative fight, but said he backed the compromise plan being pushed in the state legislature and still supported the national law.
“He voted for it because it's going to give tens of thousands of people healthcare that haven't had it before. It's going to be affordable and reliable, and it will create jobs,” Pryor spokesman Michael Teague told The Hill.
The state legislature’s plan is to use the federal funds originally designed to help the state expand its Medicaid rolls to instead subsidize lower-income Arkansans in the state’s new insurance exchange.
The federal government has given Arkansas a waiver to allow it to do so and Republican leaders are strongly on board.
The plan originally appeared to have an easy path to passage, with leaders in both parties strongly supporting it.
But in recent days there has been backlash from conservatives. The local chapter of Americans for Prosperity is fighting it tooth and nail. Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) came out against it as well.
Because it’s a funding bill it needs 75 percent support in the legislature, there’s a high bar to clear.
It will likely become clear in the next week whether or not the plan has the support to pass.
The GOP’s two most likely Senate candidates, Reps. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Steve Womack (R-Ark.), haven’t weighed in on it.
Hendrix College Prof. Jay Barth, who once ran for the statehouse as a Democrat, predicted the plan would benefit Pryor in the election.
“I do think this really begins to take ObamaCare off the table a bit … it's going to end up being a bipartisan measure here in Arkansas because of the flexibility the feds have given and the assertiveness of the [Democratic] governor and Republican leaders,” he said.
“We're not seeing a lot of shift in public opinion on ObamaCare in Arkansas but it's just not as toxic as it once was.”
Arkansas Republican strategist and blogger Jason Tolbert said Pryor’s support of ObamaCare — and his votes in favor of other items in President Obama’s agenda — will still damage his reelection chances.
He admitted whatever the legislature does could help Pryor, but pointed out other aspects of the law set to take effect could hurt him.
“If this doesn't pass you could see the funding dry up for rural hospitals and health clinics and that could flip areas that have been trending Republican back towards the Democrats. And if it passes that could have the same political effect — it could have a positive impact for the Democrats,” he said.
“You could also see some of the negative aspects of ObamaCare come in as well, the higher taxes and higher [insurance] rates. It depends on whether people feel the pain or the benefit more. But the benefit could have an impact.”