By Elise Viebeck - 08/22/14 06:00 AM EDT
Vulnerable Democrats are finding ways to tout ObamaCare in an election cycle where the unpopular law was expected to be a liability for their party.
The most overt emphasis on healthcare came this week, when Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) debuted an ad centered on his 1996 bout with cancer and his vote for the 2010 legislation, which protects people with pre-existing medical conditions from losing insurance coverage.
"No one should be fighting an insurance company while you're fighting for your life," Pryor says in the ad, while sitting next to his father, David Pryor, a beloved former senator in Arkansas.
Even though Pryor never used the words “ObamaCare” or Affordable Care Act” in the 30-second spot, his explicit move to emphasize an element of the healthcare law surprised some political observers, who predicted it could be the start of a trend among Democrats.
"This is about vulnerability and saying, 'I'm like you,' " said Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and former adviser to President Clinton. "It's about making an emotional connection, especially with unmarried women. For him, for my tribe, they're who matters in the election."
"My guess is, you will see more offense on some of these issues," said David Beattie, a Democratic political strategist and pollster.
"Everyone has had an experience with insurance companies denying their care. If Democrats can't use a personal story, they can use a family story, a friend story, a constituent story. … I think you will see more of that this year,” Beattie continued.
The ad buy from Pryor, considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country, comes at a time when other Democrats are finding ways to speak positively about the healthcare law without fully embracing it.
Other endangered members like Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), and Mark Begich (D-Alaska) have taken a different tack, choosing to attack the Republican governors in their home states for rejecting the law’s expansion of Medicaid.
Still, the political dynamic of the fight over the healthcare law appears to have shifted from several months ago, where attacks on the law were central to the GOP’s campaign strategy.
News has been improving for ObamaCare since April, despite one recent poll showing opposition to the law is at an all-time high, the political debate has cooled as GOP attacks dwindle.
The new environment has allowed Pryor to reintroduce the law as part of a wider message targeting swing voters, Democratic strategists said.
"It'll be interesting to see if this actually becomes a turning point this cycle," said Southern Progress Fund Executive Director Amanda Crumley.
"I have no idea … but I do think Arkansans are going to overwhelmingly respond to Sen. Pryor's new ad," she added, noting her own Arkansas roots. "It does a good job of stripping away the politics."
Pryor is not the only endangered Senate Democrat to court centrist and women voters with a healthcare message.
Begich and Hagan have backed a bill that would reverse the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision, which allows some for-profit companies to refuse to cover birth control on religious grounds. The original mandate was created by the healthcare law.
The decision has become a major talking point for Hagan, who is running in a tight race against North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, a conservative Republican.
"Let me be very clear: What kind of birth control a female employee uses is not her boss's businesses," Hagan said at a rally with Planned Parenthood officials last month.
"I know that women in North Carolina are not going to stand for it, and I'm not going to, either."
Still, there are reasons Pryor's ad buy stands out.
The two-term Democrat is one of the few endangered members to spend big touting the law, even if it wasn’t by name. Most other incumbents are carefully pushing healthcare issues in statements, rather than gambling valuable campaign dollars.
National Republican Senatorial Committee Communications Director Brad Dayspring said Pryor's caution is a sign that ObamaCare remains a serious problem for Democrats at the ballot box.
"Had Pryor openly embraced ObamaCare and reiterated his support for the law through a paid ad, it’d be cause for celebration on the left," Dayspring wrote Thursday in a blog post. "It is hardly surprising that Pryor did not do that. Instead, this ad is little more than an attempt to inoculate a very vulnerable Senator from a law that is extremely unpopular in his state. How does one explain the fact that neither the ‘Affordable Care Act’ nor ‘ObamaCare’ is mentioned?"
A spokesman for Pryor's challenger, Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), did not respond to a request for comment on the ad.
Democratic campaign officials denied that the commercial represents a defense of ObamaCare.
"This ad is not about endorsing [the] Affordable Care Act," said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky. "If it was, he would have mentioned it. The ad is of Mark telling his personal story — his own personal experiences fighting the insurance companies — and features his father."
Barasky added, "It’s clear that the GOP strategy of winning back the Senate on [healthcare] alone has failed. Voters agree with Democrats like Mark Pryor, who believes we should be holding big insurance companies accountable."
As for Pryor, the ad was almost certainly poll tested before its debut, but it is unclear how much impact it will have in his close race with Cotton.
Democrats in the state said the spot would resonate because it shows off Pryor's skills as a retail politician, one reason both parties acknowledge the race is closer than many thought it would be. A day after the ad debuted, the Democratic Party of Arkansas released their own poll showing Pryor up by five points.
"It's Mark Pryor and David Pryor telling their story," said Jason Willett, a former Democratic Party chairman in the state and Pryor family friend. "It's what they have been doing their whole life."