LITTLE ROCK — In Arkansas, it's the Republicans who are trying to make political hay out of the U.S. Supreme Court's affirmation of the federal health care law, a big victory for the Democratic president's signature policy issue.
LITTLE ROCK — In Arkansas, it’s the Republicans who are trying to make political hay out of the U.S. Supreme Court’s affirmation of the federal health care law, a big victory for the Democratic president’s signature policy issue.
Reaction from Arkansas Democrats has been muted, likely an election-year reflection that the law known as Obamacare is as unpopular in the state as its namesake.
GOP officials brushed aside any notion that the high court’s ruling had repudiated their vehement opposition to the law as a takeover of health care.
“To the people of Arkansas I say this: I heard your concerns and I stood with you, and today I continue standing with you, and together we will win the battle,” Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Darr said Friday in a news conference in which he was joined by nine GOP legislators.
An underlying theme of several Republican officials’ statements responding Thursday to the ruling was that voters can overrule the Supreme Court by voting Republican in November.
“At the end of the day this will be an issue for the American people to decide, and much of that decision will be in November,” said U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock.
Republicans appeared eager to tie Democrats to Obamacare.
“The lack of fight by some in state government on behalf of Arkansans should illustrate who is committed to our people and who is committed to their party,” state Rep. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, said at Darr’s news conference.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, who voted for the health care law in 2010, said in a statement that he has heard from families helped by the law and that “the protections upheld … by the Supreme Court will continue to benefit these families, and thousands of other Arkansans who have struggled with the cost of health care in our country.”
But other Arkansas Democratic officials were more circumspect. Gov. Mike Beebe and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel issued neutral statements saying they would study the ruling. U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, D-Prescott, who voted against the 2010 health care reform measure in the midst of running for re-election, said the law contains “good and bad provisions” and declined to say how he would vote on a Republican effort to repeal the law.
Ross voted in support of repealing the law last year.
Unlike the state GOP, the Democratic Party of Arkansas did not issue a statement on the court decision Thursday, though spokeswoman Candace Martin said party officials have answered questions about the ruling when asked.
“Whenever you look at (Arkansas) Democrats and the issues that they are focused on, their No. 1 priority remains creating jobs and improving education in order to continue to grow our economy, and you’ll continue to see that narrative drive the agenda of Arkansas Democrats,” Martin said.
In a state that typically ranks low in health statistics, why do Democrats say health care is not a top priority? Possibly because that is also what voters say.
In an October 2011 poll by the University of Arkansas, 67 percent of respondents named the economy as the most important issue or problem facing Arkansans, while only 3 percent named health care.
Polls also suggest that a win for Obama may not be a win for Arkansas Democrats. In March, a poll by Talk Business and Hendrix College found that 32 percent of respondents approved of Obama’s job performance and 63.5 percent disapproved.
Obama lost to Republican John McCain in Arkansas in November 2008 by 20 points. He has not come to Arkansas since becoming president, though First Lady Michelle Obama has made two appearances in the state.
“Arkansas Republicans, perhaps rightly, think (the Supreme Court ruling) works to their advantage in terms of the potential they have for becoming the majority in the next election,” said Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas.
Parry said that potential already existed, but the ruling is “another arrow in the quiver.”
Alan Hughes, state president of the AFL-CIO, which supports the health care law and has endorsed Obama for re-election, said Democrats nationwide have not done enough to explain the law to the public.
“The Republicans have done a better job of scaring people than the Democrats have of being able to convince people that this is the right thing,” he said.
Parry said it is nothing new for Republicans to outdo Democrats in crafting a simple, coherent message. In the case of Obamacare, she said, “Democrats have been too slow and the explanation has been too complicated.”
Parry said that as a poor state, Arkansas is among the states receiving the most benefits from the law, yet Arkansans have not embraced it.
“There is a duality there that Democrats just can’t seem to get a grip on, and Republicans are smart to take great advantage of that gap,” she said.