Gov. Asa Hutchinson has involved himself in eight GOP primaries, endorsing a candidate and donating campaign cash via his PAC. These races — three for Senate seats and five for the House — could have an outsized impact on the future of the private option, the state’s unique version of Medicaid expansion.
Hutchinson seeks to continue the private option with conservative tweaks, a plan he calls “Arkansas Works.” He’s playing in races where the candidates appear to be split over whether to support the governor. The big vote on the private option coming in April, when the legislature convenes for a special session, won’t be directly impacted by these races: The special session will count votes among the current membership.
But these races could have a symbolic impact that pushes wobbly GOP lawmakers on the fence: it could signal either that Republican incumbents are vulnerable if they back the PO or that the governor has significant juice in tipping the scales in primary elections (or somewhere in between). Republican lawmakers will be watching closely. It also impacts the vote count in 2017 and beyond. Remember, unless the governor’s team tries a new legal strategy, they need supermajorities every single year. Every vote counts.
Here’s a look at the key races to watch.
Rep. Lance Eads is taking on Washington County Justice of the Peace Sharon Lloyd, both of Springdale, for a seat made open by Sen. Jon Woods. Woods had been a big target of anti-PO advocacy group Conduit for Action. Eads is the choice for establishment Republicans like Hutchinson and Woods, while Lloyd represents that anti-PO Tea Party faction. This one may be a tossup.
Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, who has backed the private option, is being challenged by Tea Partier Justice of the Peace R.D. Hopper. Both are from Cabot. Conduit has attacked Williams in this race.
Sen. Jane English voted against the private option originally in 2013, but came on board in 2014 when then Gov. Mike Beebe agreed to unrelated job training programs backed by English. She backed Hutchinson’s 2015 plan to keep the PO in place and appears to be supportive of the “Arkansas Works” framework. She is being challenged by Tea Partier Rep. Donnie Copeland. Both are from North Little Rock. Conduit has attacked English in this race.
In Batesville, Rep. James Sturch, who backed the governor’s plan to continue the private option in 2015, is being challenged by aginner Phillip Finch.
In Rogers, Rep. Rebecca Petty, who backed the governor’s PO plan in 2015, is being challenged by right-wing radical Rep. Debra Hobbs, who previously held the seat and voted against the PO.
In Bentonville, Rep. Sue Scott, who supported the PO in 2013, 2014, and 2015, is facing a challenge from aginner Ausin McCollum. Scott gave one of the most humane speeches in the entire PO debate and fought off a challenge in 2014. Both Conduit and Americans for Prosperity have attacked Scott in this race.
Unusually, Hutchinson is backing a challenger over an incumbent. Chris Steplock of Greenbrier will likely be more open to working with the governor on health care than Rep. Josh Miller of Heber Springs, a hardcore opponent of the private option. Steplock has tried the novel approach of attacking Miller for supporting Obamacare because of Miller’s support for Community First Choice Option (CFCO).
Rep. Jana Della Rosa of Rogers, an establishment Republican who has strongly backed the governor’s health care efforts, faces challenges from two contenders: Randy Alexander of Rogers, a former state representative who often seemed confused and was known for wearying anecdotes about people who thought they were dogs, but consistently voted against the private option; and Jana Starr of Springdale, another PO opponent. Della Rosa has faced relentless attacks from Conduit and AFP and has sparred aggressively, calling them “dark money…puppet masters.”
Here’s one of AFP’s mailers attacking Della Rosa:
Support for special health care reporting made possible by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.