Good story in yesterday’s D-G from Michael Wickline taking a look at the Republican primary challenge to incumbent state Sen. Missy Irvin by former Cleburne County Justice of the Peace Phil Grace. The private option issue looms large in the campaign. 

Irvin voted to fund the private option in 2013 but then flipped and voted against it in 2014. She told me that this was because she “was not happy with the way [the private option] is going” and released a statement prior to the beginning of the fiscal session announcing that she was a NO. Irvin said she was motivated by policy, not politics, but several lawmakers told me that Irvin hoped her statement would keep Grace from joining the race. If true, no such luck — Grace announced his candidacy less than two weeks later, with a heavy focus on Irvin’s original vote for the private option. “My opponent’s record of voting for the largest government expansion in Arkansas’ history, known as the Private Option, is troubling to many of the Republican voters in SD18,” Grace said in his press release. Flipping her vote this year, Grace will try to argue, doesn’t change the fact that Irvin helped get the policy enacted in 2013. (Perhaps worth noting that Americans for Prosperity has stated that they will “score” lawmakers on the private option based on how they voted originally in 2013, not the fiscal session vote in 2014, further calling into question the political upside of flipping to NO).

Irvin is very popular in her district and a very effective campaigner, so it remains to be seen how much headway Grace will be able to make hammering her on the private option. This issue — still deeply divisive within the Republican party in Arkansas — will pop up in a number of GOP primaries this year. Rep. Andrea Lea, running for state auditor, and Rep. Duncan Baird, running for state treasurer, both must survive primaries against opponents who are attacking their votes for the private option. Running for Congress, Rep. Ann Clemmer, like Irvin, flip-flopped from voting for the private option appropriation in 2013 to voting against it this year but is facing attacks nonetheless. In the state senate, incumbents Sen. Bruce Holland and Sen. Bill Sample both face primary challenges from opponents making an issue of their support for the private option. Rep. John Burris, one of the key Republican architects of the private option, is running for an open Senate seat (vacated by Sen. Johnny Key, who voted for the private option and is not running for re-election so he can pursue a UA lobbying gig). Burris has two primary opponents, one of whom is opposed to the policy. Several House Republicans who voted for the private option are also facing challenges. 

In many of these races, the private option is the only major substantive difference between the two candidates (or in the case of someone like Irvin or fellow flipper Rep. John Hutchison in the House, a past vote on the private option). The outcome of these intra-party squabbles could have a big impact on the future of the private option in part simply because the margins to get the needed supermajority were so tight. If Holland or Sample was replaced by someone who opposed the private option, for example, the Senate would likely be one vote short. 


The other factor that makes these races important is more symbolic but also key for the private option’s future. Many Republicans will be looking to these races to help them figure out what a private option vote will mean to their political futures. It would be an oversimplification to look at any one of these particular races and say that someone won or lost because of the private option. But do you know who is always overeager to heavy-handedly apply a big narrative onto discreet election results? Lawmakers, that’s who! (Okay, maybe journalists too.) If folks who voted for the private option survive their primaries, Republican lawmakers will be more comfortable voting for the private option going forward; if they fall, Republican lawmakers going forward are going to be petrified (some already are — one lawmaker who wanted the private option to pass but voted no told me during the fiscal session that it would be “political suicide” in Republican primaries to vote yes). If Lea and Baird win statewide office and most incumbents who voted for the private option hold on (or vice versa) — I’m not saying that actually proves anything, but it’s precisely the sort of signal that Republican legislators on the fence are going to be looking for. And those are the folks who will likely decide the fate of the private option in 2015. 

For a measure of how delicate this issue is for Republicans in 2014, see Asa Hutchinson and Tom Cotton, both of whom are trying to thread the needle by declining to take a clear position on the issue at all.