Great story in the D-G this morning from Mike Wickline on the split within the Republican party over the private option. Gov. Asa Hutchinson is endorsing candidates in eight tough GOP primaries, which has the Tea Party wing whining that the titular head of the party is playing favorites. Hutchinson has also lent financial support through ASA PAC, his political action committee, recorded robocalls, and given his favored candidates statements to use in mailers.

The big issue here, of course, is the private option. The governor needs all the backing he can find in the legislature to keep the Medicaid expansion in place. If the aginners block it, his budget for next year suddenly has a hole of more than $100 million. Opponents have argued that those backing the governor’s plan are supporting Obamacare, which Hutchinson says is unfair. 

The primary results won’t directly impact the special session on the matter in April — the legislature will convene with its current membership. But the primaries will be an important symbolic signal for wobbly Republicans on the fence about supporting the governor’s plan, and of course the makeup of the legislature in 2017 and 2018 will determine whether Hutchinson has any hope of continuing to get annual supermajority approval for the Medicaid expansion appropriation. 

Wickline reports: 

Hutchinson said he generally doesn’t endorse legislative candidates in GOP primaries, and that’s “a good rule. It’s a safer rule.”

“There is a lot of Republican primaries out there that I am not engaged in. I assume probably the majority of them I am not engaged in,” he said last week at the state Republican Party headquarters in Little Rock.

But there are eight candidates — mostly running for re-election or who are in legislative offices but are running for different positions — who “have supported me and my agenda as governor, and I have a loyalty to them. So, I have indicated my support for them,” Hutchinson said.

There are 18 GOP primary legislative races on Tuesday’s ballot — 15 for House seats and three for Senate positions.

Hutchinson is supporting a candidate in the three Senate primaries. He favors Rep. Lance Eads over Washington County Justice of the Peace Sharon Lloyd (both are of Springdale); Sen. Eddie Joe Williams over Lonoke County Justice of the Peace R.D. Hopper (both of Cabot); and Sen. Jane English over Rep. Donnie Copeland (both of North Little Rock).

ASA PAC has contributed $5,400 ($2,700 for the primary election and $2,700 for the general election) to each of the three — Eads, Williams and English, according to the lawmakers’ campaign-finance reports. The state’s individual contribution limit is $2,700 per election.

The governor is endorsing a candidate in five House primaries.

He supports Rep. James Sturch over Phillip Finch (both of Batesville); Rep. Rebecca Petty over former Rep. Debra Hobbs (both of Rogers); Rep. Sue Scott of Rogers over Austin McCollum of Bentonville; Chris Steplock of Greenbrier over Rep. Josh Miller of Heber Springs; and Rep. Jana Della Rosa of Rogers over former Rep. Randy Alexander of Rogers and Jana Starr of Springdale.

ASA PAC has contributed $5,400 apiece to Sturch, Petty, Scott and Della Rosa, according to their campaign-finance reports, and $5,400 to Steplock, said ASA PAC spokesman Marie Holder.

Hendrix political science professor Jay Barth tells Wickline that it’s a test of Hutchinson’s political capital: “There is a lot of riskiness. If it goes awry, it could be embarrassing and show some weakness in his own party.”

Brenda Vassaur-Taylor, a co-founder for the dizzying array of PACs and other entities funded by Fayetteville businessman Joe Maynard for the purpose of opposing the private option (and, his critics say, buying the state senate) said that Hutchinson is starting a civil war: 

“Many have told us that his involvement [in GOP legislative primaries] is not received well and have considered it as the beginning of a ‘civil war’ within the party as they believe his clarified positions are not consistent with Arkansas’ conservative Republican platform,” she said in an email.

Hutchinson, a former Republican Party chairman, said he respectfully disagrees with Vassaur-Taylor.

“I am a loyal Republican. I have fought for decades for the principles of our party, and I continue to do so, and every position I have taken is consistent with the principles of our party,” he said.

“But I also will say that my first allegiance is to the people of the state of Arkansas. I hope that’s how my decisions are weighed as to what is good and best for Arkansas,” said Hutchinson.

Wickline also quotes various anti-PO candidates complaining about the governor’s involvement in their races (Phillip Finch, challenging Rep. James Sturch, said it was a “gut punch”).