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National Politics|By Amy Walter, August 21, 2014

There was quite a flurry of interest the other day about the fact that highly endangered Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor released an ad praising Obamacare. Ok, he didn’t actually praise it. He didn’t even use the term “Obamacare” or “Affordable Care Act”. Still, given the fact that even President Obama never mentioned the health care law in English language ads during the 2012 campaign, it’s notable that a red state Democrat would be willing to even mention the word health care in 2014.

The ad came on the heels of reporting that the number of GOP ads attacking Obamacare has dropped off, leading some to speculate that the issue of Obamacare is no longer as toxic to Democrats as it once was. Has this issue finally run its course?

Short answer: No. Obamacare remains a liability to Democrats this fall. It remains widely unpopular in southern red states where control of the Senate will be determined. It may not be the issue this cycle, but it is still a top negative for Democrats. Plus, the more unpopular the President, the more politically toxic any issue associated with him or his administration. One Republican consultant told me he’s calling this the “O” election: it is defined by views of Obama. And among Republicans and independents, those views aren’t positive.

Republicans and their allies took to the airwaves early this cycle with ads that linked the unpopular law to Democratic candidates. In most places, that linkage has been accomplished. Once the link has been made, said one GOP strategist “you’ve gotten what you’re gonna get.” In other words, once a campaign has established that their opponent has supported Obamacare, the lines are now set and aren’t going to move with a higher volume of attacks. However, there’s life after the generic Obamacare attacks. Said that same GOP operative, “don’t leave Obamacare behind, build on it.”

One way to “build” on it is for a candidate to give specific examples of how the new law has hurt individuals in the state or district in which he/she is running. Colorado Senate Republican nominee Cory Gardner tells voters that his own family had his health insurance policy cancelled.

Obamacare also remains an important issue to rally the GOP base, and with Republicans counting on an enthusiasm gap to pull them through to victory in 2014, it is important for them to be vigilant in stoking GOP energy. At the same time, Democrats like Pryor need to keep their base energized as well. This is why they can’t simply run “against” the President and his policies. Notice how Pryor (and his father, former Sen. David Pryor) focus on how the “law” prevented big, bad insurance companies from denying people coverage. That’s a message that Democrats embrace and one that doesn’t scare away more moderate voters either.

Almost four years after the Affordable Care Act was passed, it has yet to become a political asset for Democrats. Republicans, at least at this point, have won the messaging war. Of course, to win a messaging war suggests that the other side was fighting too. Democrats never ran any sort of positive messaging on the issue, giving Republicans the opportunity to define the debate. Republicans aren’t going to stop running ads on Obamacare – they are just going to look different than the ones they’ve run thus far. For their part, Democrats have to find a way to both defuse the attacks while preventing their base from becoming even more dispirited.