Could Super Tuesday be the night that the tide turned in the endless intra-party squabble within the GOP over the private option? Backers of the private option picked up six big wins in the Republican legislative primaries, giving new momentum for the continuation of the policy, which needs annual 75-percent supermajority support in both houses of the legislature. 

Six challengers took on incumbent legislators who had voted for Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s plan to continue the private option, the state’s unique form of Medicaid expansion (the governor now proposes keeping the policy in place with conservative tweaks; he calls it “Arkansas Works”).  Five of the six pro-PO Republican incumbents, all backed by Hutchinson, won. 


Meanwhile, Hutchinson got another victory in a hotly contested open senate seat between Rep. Lance Eads — who supports the governor’s plan — and Sharon Lloyd, a Tea Party candidate who ran against the private option. Eads prevailed, a crucial victory because the seat is being opened by the departure of a key PO vote, Sen. Jon Woods

Hutchinson also took the unusual step of backing a challenger to an incumbent Republican, Rep. Josh Miller, who opposed the private option. Miller, as expected, cruised easily, but this was a long shot play by Hutchinson and doesn’t shift the vote-counting dynamics. 


For backers of the private option, it was a dominant showing. It also represented a victory for the governor, who endorsed the pro-PO Republicans and provided financial support via his political action committee, ASA PAC. And it represented a resounding defeat for Fayetteville businessman Joe Maynard, co-founder and funder of Conduit for Action and a dizzying array of PACs and other entities devoted to fighting the private option and taking health insurance away from more than 250,000 Arkansans. Conduit played hard in these races, hoping to shift the legislature toward hostility to Medicaid expansion, and came up short.

Keep in  mind: none of these elections directly impact the special session this April, when the legislature will convene to vote on the future of the private option. That vote will be made by the current membership. But the victories last night were absolutely crucial for the future of the policy in years to come. If the aginners picked up enough seats, the vote count to get to a supermajority in 2017 and 2018 would start to look insurmountable. 


And last night’s results also matter for the special session this year. It sounds hokey to say it was a symbolic victory but legislators pay very close attention to these kinds of signals from the electorate. Wobbly Republican lawmakers on the fence are much more likely to back the private option after last night’s results (and of course the reverse would have been true if the aginners had won). Most GOP legislators are safe in general elections but fear primary challenges from the right. Last night’s results suggest that the “you voted for Obamacare” attack on pro-PO Republicans has perhaps grown stale. It’s clear that Republicans can vote for the PO and fend off challengers. And Hutchinson also sent a strong signal that help from the governor is more powerful than attacks from groups like Conduit for Action. 

Hutchinson’s spokesman, J.R. Davis, expressed optimism about the momentum gained: 

We recognize how big last night was in terms of momentum. The Governor made it clear where he stood in these races, and Arkansans stood by him with their vote. Thoughtful, hardworking candidates with a proven, conservative record of standing up for their constituents and doing the right thing won — and that’s always a good thing.

None of this changes the fact that right now, the governor probably doesn’t have the 75 percent support in the Senate he needs. Maybe not the House either. But with the debate stuck and Capitol insiders increasingly bearish on the future of the PO, the governor needed a game-changer. He may have gotten one last night. 

The wins in the Senate, where Team Hutchinson swept all three races, are especially crucial both because the vote margins in that chamber are tighter and because they are higher-profile, pricier races. In addition to Eads, incumbents Sen. Eddie Joe Williams and Sen. Jane English defeated challengers, despite sustained attacks from Conduit for Action. It will be interesting to track (if possible!) just how much money Maynard and Conduit wasted during this primary season. It’s likely substantial. 


Eads and Williams won easily, while English squeaked by in a close vote. 

Meanwhile, in the House, Rep. James Sturch, Rep. Rebecca Petty, and Rep. Jana Della Rosa fended off challengers. The Della Rosa race was especially bitter as she faced heavy attacks from Conduit and Americans for Prosperity. Della Rosa sparred aggressively, calling those groups “dark money…puppet masters” and sending out mailers with Hutchinson’s strong endorsement. She dominated with a 37-point win; Petty and Sturch also cruised to blowout wins. 

The one seat the aginners managed to pick off: Rep. Sue Scott of Bentonville fell to Austin McCollum, 56-44. Scott had beaten a previous challenge by an anti-PO opponent in 2014 but lost this time in another race that was bombarded with AFP and Conduit money. 

In total, the governor went 6 for 8 in races in which he endorsed (that includes the Miller race, likely always a hopeless cause). 

Meanwhile, it’s a devastating night for Conduit. The Conduit network has had a mixed record of success but it has helped turn primary races in the past, most notably helping to defeat Rep. John Burris, a Republican architect of the private option, for an open senate seat. Many Arkansas Republicans complained that Maynard and Conduit were trying to buy the senate. If nothing else, they were clearly hoping to kill the PO. After last night, Republican candidates will likely be less scared of Conduit going forward. And Maynard at this point has wasted a really staggering amount of money for no real gain. Will he keep throwing campaign cash around? Will Conduit still be able to recruit protest candidates for an issue that may not pack the same punch at this point? [UPDATE: I heard back from Brenda Vassaur Taylor, a co-founder and spokesperson for the Conduit groups; her response is below, in full]: 

While we congratulate the winners, we are very proud of the candidates we supported. Unlike their opponents, our candidates took solid conservative positions backed by facts. The future of the Private Option/Arkansas Works is likely just as solid as it was before yesterday. The vulnerability of this welfare program lies more our economy and Washington DC than in the number of votes Governor Hutchinson may secure from the Arkansas legislature. We are disappointed that Governor Hutchinson apparently plans to anchor our entire state budget on growing a welfare program.As an organization, we plan to continue to back candidates who support our principles of smaller government, less dependency on government, and a refusal to spend money we do not have.

Make no mistake, the PO still faces a tough, uphill fight in April. The fate of Medicaid expansion in Arknasas remains dicey. But just when things were beginning to look hopeless, this is the best news in months for the political future of the policy — and for the coverage that more than 250,000 Arkansans depend on. 

Support for special health care reporting made possible by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.