Posted 8/18/2013 03:04 pm
Updated 7 months ago
LITTLE ROCK — Lt. Gov. Mark Darr and state House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman won office three years ago riding an anti-Obama wave, with both vowing to kill the president's signature health care law. Now that they're both seeking a south Arkansas congressional seat, the two rivals are clashing over who hates the health overhaul more.
Both say they want the law repealed and are touting their credentials as Republicans who have battled the overhaul at the state level. But their nine-month battle for the Republican nomination for a congressional seat will likely hinge on who can sell himself as the biggest opponent of the law, as well as an insurance expansion Arkansas legislators approved this year under the overhaul.
It also offers a preview of the internal struggle Republicans face as they try to complete a takeover of the state's political system in the 2014 election.
After toppling a U.S. senator in 2010 and winning three constitutional offices by linking Democrats to the health care law, Arkansas Republicans doubled down on that strategy last year and took over the state's Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. They also swept the state's four U.S. House seats. Eyeing a potential takeover of all the statewide and constitutional offices, Republicans are eager to see if that strategy will work one more time.
"I think we need to repeal and replace Obamacare, and we need people up there who are willing to do it," Darr said before announcing his bid, touting himself as the only state official to sue to fight the health care law.
Not to be outdone, Westerman noted that he and other Republican lawmakers also signed on to briefs challenging President Barack Obama's signature health care law.
"I believe if something is worth fighting for, it's worth continuing to fight for and I hope that someday we have the political climate where we can repeal the Affordable Care Act. ... It was put on the books by Congress, and it can be taken off the books by Congress," Westerman said last week.
Similar rhetoric echoes throughout other races. In announcing his bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, Republican Rep. Tom Cotton blamed the two-term senator's vote as the reason why the health care overhaul became law.
Republicans are also highlighting Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Mike Ross' vote for a House health care bill in a committee when he served in Congress. Ross voted in the House against the health care law and voted for its repeal in Congress.
They're facing pushback from Democrats who are defending a law that they say will help a state where thousands remain without insurance coverage. Hoping to avoid the pitfall that former Sen. Blanche Lincoln faced in her re-election bid in 2010, Pryor has argued that the law may need fixes but doesn't need to be repealed.
"I came to the conclusion that the Affordable Care Act was the right thing for Arkansas," Pryor told members of the state Chamber of Commerce last month. "I think you can look and see it's already starting to work. It is working."
The challenge for Republicans in next year's election will be addressing the "private option" approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health care law. Under the plan, which awaits approval from the federal government, Arkansas will use Medicaid funds to purchase private insurance for thousands of low-income workers.
The Darr-Westerman matchup shows the types of fights that await Republicans in dozens of primaries across the ballot next year. Darr opened his campaign with a criticism of Westerman for initially sponsoring the private option legislation, saying the expansion never would have become law without his work.
"I just think that one he did the research for it, he helped write the bill and at the last hour he pulled out and said 'I've got something else,'" Darr said. "To me, that's a CYA bill. It just covers your own rear and says this is my own."
Darr said he opposed private option but would have signed it into law if he were governor given the supermajority support it received.
Westerman used his announcement speech to defend himself, acknowledging he wrote part of the plan and indirectly criticizing Darr for not speaking out against it earlier.
"I needed to be the voice of my constituents that day -- without the luxury of 20/20 vision that comes with hindsight and with the courage to do the right thing when the pressure is high," Westerman said.
The dispute may be tame compared to the ones Republicans will face in other races between supporters and opponents of the private option. The campaign rhetoric in those races will heat up as lawmakers return to the Capitol in February for next year's session, where opponents of the insurance expansion law say they'll mount an effort to block its funding.
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