LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Democrats Mark Pryor and Mike Ross took different positions on the president's federal health overhaul plan when it came before Congress four years ago. But, running in the two hottest races in Arkansas this fall, both find themselves under attack on the issue and attempting to navigate around it as they struggle to prevent a complete Republican takeover of the state's top offices.
Pryor, running for re-election to the Senate, and Ross, a former congressman running for governor, are facing Republican opponents who are running on an anti "Obamacare" message. Both Democrats are trying to embrace part_but not all_of a law that is generally unpopular in Arkansas but that is extending insurance to thousands of residents who didn't have any.
"I think the challenge for the Democrats in both races is to focus on the specifics, the particulars and try to get away from the generic label, which remains pretty unpopular, even toxic here," said Hal Bass, a political science professor at Ouachita Baptist University.
For Pryor, a two-term senator who voted for the health care law, that's meant pointing out certain benefits of the measure without mentioning it by name. For Ross, the Democrats' gubernatorial nominee who voted against the overhaul and called for its repeal, that's meant vowing to continue the state's compromise plan to expand Medicaid under the law.
The races are among the most expensive and closely watched in the nation. Pryor is being challenged by freshman U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton in a race that could help determine which party controls the Senate next year. Ross is running against former congressman Asa Hutchinson. Pryor's seat and the governorship are two of four statewide offices still held by Democrats.
Though candidates in both races have raised other issues, blasting the health overhaul has been a common theme for Republicans as they've steadily gained power in the state over the past two elections. Cotton regularly brings up Pryor's vote for the health care law, and Hutchinson criticizes Ross for voting for a version of health reform legislation in committee before voting against the bill that was signed into law.
Pryor last month began airing an ad where he touts the benefits of the health care law - without naming it - and says his battle with a rare form of cancer 18 years ago influenced him.
"No one should be fighting an insurance company while you're fighting for your life," Pryor says in the ad. "That's why I helped pass a law that prevents insurance companies from cancelling your policy if you get sick, or deny coverage for pre-existing conditions."
Ross has been running partly on a promise to keep alive the state's "private option" Medicaid expansion, which is using federal funds to purchase private insurance for the poor. More than 183,000 people are enrolled in the program, which was crafted as an alternative to the Medicaid expansion called for under the health law.
"As a Christian, I think it's the right thing to do and I'm going to do my best as governor to continue to fund it," Ross told a group of Delta leaders earlier this summer.
According to a Gallup survey released last month, the share of uninsured residents in Arkansas dropped about 10 percentage points - from 22.5 percent in 2013, to 12.4 percent in the middle of this year.
Cotton and Hutchinson have regularly skewered the health care law in speeches and ads as an example of government overreach. But they've also tried to tread carefully around popular parts of the law, especially the "private option."
Hutchinson, for his part, has stopped short of saying whether he'd support continuing that program next year and says he wants to review its progress.
"We know that Obamacare's not working. It's fatally flawed and the Legislature dealt with this the best they could," Hutchinson said earlier this year.
Cotton also calls for the health law's repeal, but has been careful to say that he wants to address the same problems the overhaul's backers say it solves, such as consumers being unable to get insurance because of pre-existing conditions.
"What we have to do is repeal Obamacare, start over, and get it right," Cotton told reporters last month. "We don't have to take over one sixth of the economy to address those problems like people who couldn't afford health insurance."
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