The May 20 Arkansas primary succeeded in winnowing the field of players but as a referendum on the principal issue facing Republican voters it failed. The outcome in a dozen contests for seats in the state Senate and House of Representatives, campaigns in which “Obamacare” was the dominant theme, left in suspense the future of the Private Option, the Arkansas version of the Affordable Care Act.
By the same measure it left unresolved the near-term direction of the Arkansas Republican Party, riven by the conflict between its pragmatists and its ideologues, the former having helped push the Private Option over the top in two consecutive legislative sessions, the latter resisting mightily and vowing retribution at the polls. In about half the races in which Obamacare was front and center the purists won, calling into question whether the Private Option can maintain, or again achieve, the razor-thin margins by which it was enacted and funded. Supporters of the “P.O.” would, naturally note that half their colleagues under siege prevailed.
Factors peculiar to the various districts, and the candidates therein, were a factor, plainly; any geo-politics on Tuesday lacked the “geo-” on a regional scale. For example, Rep. Sue Scott of Rogers, in heavily Republican northwest Arkansas, bested the primary challenger she was assured when she voted in support of the P.O. in 2013. But a vocal opponent of the program, Rep. Randy Alexander of Fayetteville, was crushed.
“South of the Mountain,” in west Arkansas, Rep. Terry Rice of Waldron easily unseated Sen. Bruce Holland of Greenwood. Suspicions among the faithful that a tinge of dreaded moderation tainted Holland’s DNA were confirmed by his crucial vote for the P.O. Rice was almost unrivaled in his disdain for it, and his family’s long history in the area served him well.
Still further south and a bit to the east, Sen. Bill Sample, another P.O. supporter, had relatively little trouble dispensing with a rival. Sample won re-nomination in a district based in Hot Springs, where arch-conservatives supposedly reign.
In the Ozark foothills there was more than a little mumbling about Sen. Missy Irvin of Mountain View, who was for the P.O. before she was against it. Her switch didn’t seem to matter in the end and the mumbling came to little; Irvin clobbered Phil Grace of Heber Springs. In a neighboring Senate district, Rep. John Burris of Harrison, an engine of the P.O., finished first in a three-candidate primary but failed to avoid a run-off with Mountain Home’s Scott Flippo, pledged to dismember anything resembling Obamacare. The third candidate had expressed sympathy for the P.O.
In the heart of the Delta freshman Rep. John Hutchinson of Harrisburg fell to a retired State Police troop commander, Dwight Tosh. Hutchinson, too, had reversed himself on the P.O., voting for it one year and against it the next, but his problems ran deeper: his victory two years ago was a four-dozen vote squeaker, and Tosh was a local legend.
The mixed bag prevailed at the statewide level as well. Rep. Andrea Lea’s consecutive votes for the Private Option did not hinder her smashing victory for the GOP’s nomination for state auditor. Rep. Duncan Baird, another of the party’s Bright Young Things who helped conceive and adopt the P.O., lost his bid for the state treasurer’s job to an opponent caught on tape trying to strongarm him from the race.
That the “P.O.” was to no small extent a product of energetic Republican legislators, working in concert with the Governor Mike Beebe, a Democrat, remains the overarching irony of the Arkansas GOP’s intra-party conflict: the pride and joy of one wing is to the other nothing less than a capitulation, a philosophical and fiscal sell-out.
So, is health care reform, as represented by the Private Option, still dangling by a thread? Yes. But perhaps – no. At least the thread may be thicker by the time the next General Assembly sits.
The division in the GOP’s legislative conference may change but the dynamics of the debate, as measured by the numbers, appear to be changing as well. The number of Arkansans previously without health insurance has now climbed to 125,000. Data delivered to the legislature only days ago indicates jaw-dropping declines in the number of poor patients whose care previously was absorbed, ultimately, by those with medical coverage. Those are the beginnings of a strong political base.
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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.