The long anticipated race between Sen. Mark Pryor and Rep. Tom Cotton is finally official.
The race obviously will be quite different than Pryor’s first re-election campaign in 2008 when he cruised to victory with no Republican opponent.
It’s also obvious that there will be much ado about Pryor’s first re-election campaign since voting for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which has become known as Obamacare. Republicans would add that Pryor was the "deciding vote" since the law passed the Senate without a vote to spare. It is a label that also was placed on former Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s vote, which I will get to in a minute.
President Obama and his health-care reform law are both unpopular in Arkansas. The conservative-leaning polling firm Magellan Strategies believes Pryor may be in trouble. Over 60 percent of Arkansans polled said they would be less likely to vote for him because of his vote on Obamacare while only 27 percent said the vote makes them more likely to support him.
Cotton told me this week that he plans to make Pryor’s vote a "central issue of the campaign." Thousands of dollars already are being spent reminding voters of Pryor’s support and millions more are on the way.
It appears Pryor’s choices are to run from his vote, embrace his vote, or try to land somewhere in between.
His former colleague, Sen. Lincoln, seemed to choose the middle ground when she faced a similar predicament in her 2010 re-election campaign. During her primary, she ran a television ad in which she said, "I cast the deciding vote to pass health care reform because fixing the problem is more important than politics." But then a few weeks after the primary was over she told a reporter, "I wasn’t the deciding vote. I was among a handful of five Democrats that worked on getting consensus."
She tried to walk the tightrope and ended up tumbling to the ground.
By contrast, Pryor seems to be fully embracing his vote. Even touting the benefits of the bill.
When asked about his support for Obamacare by Channel 40/29 News while touring Mercy Hospital in Northwest Arkansas, he praised the policy saying, "It’s been an amazing success story so far."
The next morning a reporter for KARK news followed up by listing multiple issues with the law, such as the delay of the employer mandate, the increase of health insurance premiums, and selective waivers being granted. The reporter asked if that caused Pryor to second guess his support.
"No, I’m not. It actually is working in a lot of ways. There is a lot of delivery reform here," said Pryor, pointing to the ability to keep children on their parents’ insurance until age 26 and requiring hospitals to grade and publish their health outcomes.
Later the same day, Pryor again touted Obamacare to a group of business leaders at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
"I came to the conclusion that the Affordable Care Act was the right thing for Arkansas. I think you can look and see it’s already starting to work; it is working," said Pryor.
"This bill isn’t killing jobs, this bill is creating jobs. We’ve got a thousand new jobs in Rogers, Ark., directly because of this bill," said Pryor, referring to the facility set to open in Rogers to process applications for health insurance plans related to the Affordable Care Act.
Will Pryor be able to reverse Arkansans’ views on Obamacare? Cotton is betting he cannot.
"I bet there are a lot of Arkansans who will be astonished that Mark Pryor thinks that Obamacare is an amazing success story," Cotton said in a telephone interview. "I suppose Sen. Pryor has to own his vote because he was the deciding vote for Obamacare and Arkansans have long memories about it, but there aren’t that many Arkansans that have much good to say about Obamacare. They certainly don’t think it’s an ‘amazing success story.’"
Whether opinions shift may depend on factors outside either candidates’ control. The law begins taking effect in 2014, which will allow Arkansans to decide whether they see more benefit than harm. If it ends up being a train wreck, it will be a disaster for Pryor who — for better or worse — is going all in.
Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.