Republican insiders believe that despite the lip service paid to the Tea Party base by the likely next governor of Arkansas, Republican Asa Hutchinson, he has every intention of continuing the private option, the state’s unique version of Medicaid expansion which uses Medicaid funds to purchase private health insurance for low-income Arkansans. And Hutchinson may have more juice to lean on wobbly GOPs than a Democrat like Mike Beebe (or Democratic candidate Mike Ross, hoping to upset Hutchinson). Still, ultimately Hutchinson can’t do anything about the private option without the support of 75 percent of the House and Senate. We’ve been through this dance before. That’s a steep climb and likely to get even steeper. A number of competitive races could determine the future of the private option. We’ve looked at key Senate races and House races to watch in some detail but here’s a quick cheat sheet for races likely to impact the private option vote count. These are the little-watched races in various nooks and crannies of the state that could determine whether more than 200,000 Arkansans can keep their health insurance.
The lay of the land: the private option passed in 2014 with no votes to spare in the Senate and one to spare in the House. Opponents of the private option targeted Republican supporters in the primaries. They had a mixed record — two incumbents who voted for the private option survived, one was taken out, and one representative who had voted for it lost an open senate seat (in a runoff, by a few hundred votes, in one of the most conservative districts in the state). This might not exactly strike fear into the hearts of GOPs on the fence, but it does dramatically shift the tight numbers in the senate, putting the private option two votes short. If the senate loses another vote — or two — the path forward becomes incredibly dicey.
The House could see a lot movement, but remember there are lots of places to hide in a body of 100 and lots of swing votes to hunt for. In the senate, meanwhile, just nine lawmakers could hold up the train (and there are at least half a dozen unmoveable members of the Hell No Caucus more than happy to block the entire DHS budget to try to stop the private option). I’ll be keeping my eye on the senate.
Below, a list of the competitive legislative races where the candidates have a clear difference on the private option. In all of them, the Democrat is in favor of the private option and the Republican is opposed (the private option has gotten small majorities in the Republican caucus, but these are races where the GOP candidate is either a clear or possible aginner). The Republican party is Arkansas is split over the private option; with some exceptions, these are races where the Republican candidate is in the Tea Party wing of the party rather than the establishment wing. For reference, I’ve put the candidate who favors the private option in bold.
Senate District 19: This is the big one. Democratic Rep. James McLean has said that the future of the private option will come down to this race for an open seat vacated by Democratic Sen. David Wyatt. McLean has a point. He’s for the private option, opponent Linda Collins-Smith would firmly plant herself in the Hell No Caucus. If the aginners get this vote, re-authorizing the private option becomes vastly harder.
Senate District 20: Incumbent Democratic Sen. Robert Thompson who won a squeaker in 2012, is trying to fend off a rematch challenge from Republican Blake Johnson. This one is a big deal too, but Johnson might be open to voting for the private option (possibly confused about the Government Accountability Office talking point, he actually said he would have voted for traditional Medicaid expansion). Johnson is definitely a gettable vote, but if both he and Collins-Smith win, the momentum might be on the aginners’ side to pressure Johnson.
House District 18: Incumbent Republican Rep. Richard Womack is a strong member of the Hell No Caucus; challenger Damon Daniels supports the private option and this is a winnable seat for Dems.
House District 26: Incumbent Democrat Rep. David Kizzia faces strong challenge from Tea Party favorite Laurie Rushing.
House District 32: Open seat where term-limited Republican Rep. Allen Kerr voted fro the private option in 2013 but flipped to a nay in 2014. Republican Jim Sorvillo, another Tea Partier, facing off against Democrat John Adams.
House District 38: Incumbent Democrat Patti Julian faces a challenge from Republican Donnie Copeland, backed by big-money opponents of the private option such as Curtis Coleman and Conduit for Action.
House District 41: Seat being vacated by strong private option supporter, Democratic Rep. Jim Nickels. This is a reddening district that won’t be easy for the Dems to hold: Democrat Danny Knight faces off against Republican Karilyn Brown.
House District 52: Likely to be one of the closest legislative races in the state. Republican John Hutchison — who voted for the private option in 2013, then flipped against it in 2014 — was toppled by Tea Partier challenger Dwight Tosh in the primary. Tosh faces off against Democrat Radius Baker.
House District 53: Incumbent Democrat Rep. Homer Lenderman is getting a strong challenge from Republican Dan Sullivan. Unlike some of the GOPs on this list, Sullivan is more of an establishment type (whose business is heavily reliant on Medicaid dollars) who might be a gettable vote to put the private option over the top.
House District 58: Another incumbent Democrat in territory relatively favorable to the GOPs, Rep. Harold Copenhaver, facing a challenge from Brandt Smith. Smith seems hazy enough on the private option (tweaks, etc.) that he could be a Yes vote even if he takes out Copenhaver.
House District 59: Another tossup for term-limited Democrat Rep. Butch Wilkins’s seat. Democrat Ron Carroll is up against Republican Jack Ladyman. Ladyman opposes the private option but is another one who probably leans more establishment than Tea Party and might be a gettable vote.
House District 63: Tossup race for term-limited Democrat Rep. James McLean’s seat in a reddening area. Democrat Lackey Moody against Republican James Sturch.
House District 93: Major longshot but this would suddenly make getting over the hump in the House easier — incumbent Rep. Jim Dotson is one of the fiercest opponents of the private option in the legislature; Democrat Leah Williams is putting up a surprisingly strong challenge in conservative Benton County.
House District 94: Another Benton County play for the Democrats that would be a bit of a game-changer. This is the seat of term-limited Republican Debbie Hobbs, a diehard private option foe. Grimsley Graham, a strong candidate for the Democrats, is battling Republican Rebecca Petty, who would carry on the Hobbs Tea Party tradition.