LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Arkansas Republicans became the state's majority party in part by focusing their ire on the federal health care overhaul over the past several years and vowing its repeal, even in local and legislative races where they didn't have a vote on the matter. The failure of GOP efforts to end the 2010 law, even under a Republican White House and Congress, could make it harder for Republicans in the state to run again against the law they've derided as "Obamacare."
But the law will still loom large over the state's top races next year.
The collapse last week in the U.S. Senate of a slimmed-down bill aimed at repealing parts of the health care law could provide a very narrow opening to Democrats in Arkansas, and could put Republicans in uncomfortable positions across the ballot. But it's hard to see the health care debate at this point vastly changing the dynamic in a state where Republicans are firmly in control.
Here's how the debate over the law's future may play out in some of the state's top races next year:
ARKANSAS GOVERNOR: An avowed opponent of the health law, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson supported keeping the state's hybrid Medicaid expansion but has pushed for changes that he says will make the program more conservative. More than 300,000 people are on the program, which uses Medicaid funds to purchase private plans through the insurance exchange for low-income residents. Hutchinson last week credited the hybrid expansion for proposed rate increases by insurers on the exchange being lower than what many other states are seeing. Hutchinson is awaiting federal approval for new limits to the program that would move 60,000 people off the expansion and require some of those remaining to work. It remains to be seen whether Hutchinson will face a primary challenger from the right who could tap into conservative opposition to expansion. Democrats are likely to focus on their criticism that the limits backed by Hutchinson would hurt a program that's helped cut the uninsured rate in Arkansas, and also probably will target the Republican governor for not fighting the efforts to repeal and replace the federal health law.
CONGRESS: All four of Arkansas' U.S. House members are seeking re-election next year, and each of the Republican lawmakers backed the GOP bill in the House to repeal and replace the federal health law. Three of the congressmen already face challenges from Democratic rivals who are touting their support of the health overhaul and are accusing the lawmakers of ignoring the needs of the thousands of Arkansans benefiting from the federal health law. They're hoping the regular appearance of demonstrators at the offices of the state's Republican U.S. senators — who aren't on the ballot next year — is a sign that voters aren't enthusiastic about ending the health law. The biggest obstacles they face are a lack of name recognition and money in a state that has clearly shifted to the right.
STATE LEGISLATURE: The biggest test for voter sentiment on the health law could come in the May primary next year, with some GOP lawmakers potentially facing challenges that could focus on their support for keeping the state's hybrid Medicaid expansion alive. Depending on what happens in Washington, victories by conservative Republicans opposed to the expansion could further jeopardize the future of an expansion program that has faced tenuous votes in the state Legislature since it was created four years ago. If efforts to repeal the federal health law are revived in Washington, that could prompt Democrats in the general election to make questions about the future of those currently receiving coverage a central issue.