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Health-care debate turned upside down in Arkansas

The Democrat in this race is boasting about ACA benefits, the Republican says there's "no doubt" the law has helped, and Karl Rove's outfit loves Medicare.
U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., speaks at a meeting of university officials in Little Rock, Ark., Nov. 1, 2013.
U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., speaks at a meeting of university officials in Little Rock, Ark., Nov. 1, 2013.
As of a few months ago, the U.S. Senate race in Arkansas, one of the nation's most competitive contests, looked fairly predictable. On health care, incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor (D) would generally avoid the Affordable Care Act, while Rep. Tom Cotton (R) would run far to the right, base much of his platform on destroying the law, and promise to eliminate benefits for millions.
As of this week, those expectations have been shaken up rather dramatically. Indeed, what's playing out in Arkansas is emblematic of the changing nature of the debate everywhere.
Pryor, for example, supported the Affordable Care Act that has helped Arkansans enormously, and as Greg Sargent reported yesterday, the conservative Democrat is no longer afraid to tout his record.

In what may be the first, and certainly the most ambitious, such effort of the year, Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas is going up with a new and emotional ad that is focused solely on presenting his vote for health reform as a positive: The ad is backed by a significant, six-figure statewide buy, I'm told. The spot tells the story of Pryor's own battle with cancer, and features the Senator sitting alongside his father, David Pryor.

The 30-second spot is available online here.
Note, Pryor doesn't mention the law by name -- or its nickname -- but he doesn't have to. Instead, the senator emphasizes the popular benefits the Affordable Care Act provides for those who need it. "No one should be fighting an insurance company while you're fighting for your life," he tells viewers. "That's why I helped pass a law that prevents insurance companies from canceling your policy if you get sick, or deny coverage for preexisting conditions."
As striking as this is, the larger context is just as important. While Democrats in red states start boasting about ACA benefits, Republicans are moving away from their health care attack ads and struggling to answer questions about Medicaid expansion.
Earlier this year, all of this was supposed to be impossible. Republicans, we were assured, would stay on the offensive, attacking "Obamacare," while Democrats desperately hid from the issue. And yet, here we are, watching the conventional wisdom get turned upside down. Indeed, Pryor's ad is a reminder that while voters say they don't like the reform law, they love what's in the reform law -- even in a red state in the Deep South.
The politics have become so topsy turvy that Cotton's far-right allies have begun attacking Pryor for not being liberal enough.
Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS operation, which has never been especially concerned with the politics of reality, wants to help their conservative Republican ally by accusing the Democrat of being too conservative.

The Arkansas spot goes after Pryor on Medicare, ObamaCare and Social Security, seemingly looking to muddy the issue after recent Democratic attacks on Rep. Tom Cotton's (R-Ark.) Medicare views. The ad accuses of Pryor of talking about raising the Social Security retirement age and calls on him to "protect our Medicare by repealing ObamaCare."

This is the sort of ad an attack operation runs if it just doesn't respect the public very much. Rove's group, in this case, thinks Arkansas are so easily fooled that they should oppose Pryor because he doesn't support the safety net enough -- and they should instead vote for Cotton, who wants to replace Medicare with vouchers.
On a substantive level, the Crossroads ad is a mess, and on a political level, even conservatives find it counter-productive and hard to defend.
But again, the larger point is that Rove's attack operation felt the need to put this garbage on the air in the first place. Back in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama talked about the importance of changing the trajectory of the political conversation in a more progressive direction, and on health care, we're starting to see that happen in earnest.
That's especially true in Arkansas where Pryor is boasting about ACA benefits, Cotton says there's "no doubt" the law has helped people, and Karl Rove's outfit is running ads talking about how important socialized medical insurance is.