The presidential primary is eating up the attention of most voters but beneath the national whirlwind is a split dividing Arkansas Republicans in races for the state legislature. The margins in the state senate are so slim that a change in just of one of the chamber’s three contested races could punch a hole in Governor Asa Hutchinson’s budget.
“In all candor, the number one objective for the senate is to stop the Obamacare Medicaid expansion,” said Copeland.
Donnie Copeland, a Pentecostal pastor and state Representative, wants to unseat Jane English to represent Senate District 34 stretching through parts of Maumelle, North Little Rock, and Sherwood. I spoke to English at a restaurant in her district.
“As we move on down the road and the governor presents his two budgets – one with and one without – I think that people are going to be able to see exactly what the holes are,” said English. “If you look at other states like Louisiana, they’re in a huge deficit now because they didn’t do anything.”
There are just three state senate primaries, all Republican, and all bitterly divided over Medicaid expansion with incumbents leaning in favor of the governor’s version of it – known as Arkansas Works. On the first day of early voting Governor Hutchinson offered political cover while speaking at the Capitol.
“They’re making the linkage between everybody who supports Arkansas Works and any form of the Medicaid expansion in the states must be an ardent supporter of Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act. Let me tell you today, that is not so and we need to debunk that argument,” said Hutchinson with a dozen legislators including English standing behind him.
Copeland isn’t buying it. He says conservatives shouldn’t take federal dollars made possible by the Affordable Care Act to give insurance to an expanded group of low-income people.
“He’s wrong, I’m not afraid to say it at all, he’s wrong. He was wrong, and I think the world of him in many respects, but he is wrong on this and on the wrong side of public opinion and the voters,” said Copeland about Medicaid expansion, which the majority of Republican governors have opted not to participate in.
English gave a critical vote in 2014 that kept the state’s politically beleaguered version of Medicaid expansion, known as the private option, alive. Eight senators voted in opposition, a ninth could have stopped the program. Copeland wants to be that ninth vote.
“If you have a Republican executive branch, and control of both legislative branches and none of those have the will and the spine to stop it then you have to get control,” said Copeland. “I would add that’s the will of the people.”
Political scientist Greg Shufeldt at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock says English’s support, a switch from her opposition in 2013, came with strings attached. Legislation overhauling the state’s workforce development system passed under English’s direction.
“Most political players have been fairly straightforward about the close nature of the vote. Senator English was in a position of power and she used that position to move a passion project for her that’s not necessarily related to healthcare. But she used this opportunity,” said Shufeldt.
Senator English invoked former Democratic Governor Mike Beebe in her defense. She said they both saw re-structuring workforce development – something English has been involved with for decades – as connected to Medicaid expansion.
“He reiterated more than one time that this was not something I was doing for myself. I wasn’t trading it off for something for the district but this was a statewide issue that needed to be addressed,” she said.
Some special interest groups, like Conduit for Action, have targeted English for her vote. Copeland does too, and throws on criticism of English’s workforce goals
“You have traded the vote for another government program that by the way, last time I checked businesses start jobs. If you want to spend $13-14 million let’s spend it on entrepreneurs,” said Copeland.
English says her changes to the workforce development system – which push high schools and two-year colleges to develop programs like welding to meet the job needs of local industry - will help move people out of poverty and off of Medicaid expansion.
“Get people off of these programs, give them enough skills and education to be able to go get a job that takes care of themselves and their families. It’s easy to say everybody ought to go get a job. But if you were in this category, where a lot of those folks are, they don’t have the skills to get a job where somebody’s going to pay their insurance,” said English.
The governor plans for the legislature to vote on his version of Medicaid expansion, which is dependent upon federal approval, a little over a month after the March 1 primary. Hutchinson says his budget and care for 200,000-plus Arkansans hang in the balance.
Shufeldt says it’s a test of governance that could define the party’s future – although no matter the results the incumbents will get to vote on the program this April.
“You really have to weight these sorts of ideological purity arguments versus a more pragmatic approach to governing.” Shufeldt said the electorate could be especially partisan, “What’s going to be presenting an issue is that most of these races aren’t competitive in November so the real contest for most state legislators is can they win their primary?”
And this year is especially unpredictable, Shufeldt says, since Arkansas moved its primary up from late April to March 1, Super Tuesday, it’ll be the first competitive presidential primary in recent memory. Turnout remains a wildcard.