LITTLE ROCK – A Republican takeover of a northeast Arkansas state Senate seat dims the prospects for continuing the state’s compromise Medicaid expansion plan and could be a troubling early sign for Democrats who had hoped to rebound from recent losses at the polls.
Republican John Cooper’s victory in Tuesday’s special election gives Republicans a 22-13 majority in the Senate and takes away a key vote for the “private option” Medicaid expansion lawmakers approved last year. He called his win over Democrat Steve Rockwell a sign that voters don’t support the private option.
“That was the primary issue in this campaign,” said Cooper, a retired AT&T employee who had vowed to push for the expansion’s defunding. “Obviously that being the case, the voters spoke pretty clearly in this election here.”
Under the private option plan, Arkansas is using federal Medicaid money to purchase private insurance for thousands of low-income resident. The plan, approved as an alternative to expanding Medicaid’s enrollment under the federal health overhaul, sharply divided Republicans who control the House and Senate.
Cooper, who is filling a seat left vacant when Democratic Sen. Paul Bookout resigned last year over ethics violations, is among opponents of the plan who say they believe there are enough votes to halt the private option when the Legislature convenes Feb. 10. The session will focus primarily on the budget.
Continuing the private option will require at least 75 votes in the 100-member House and 27 votes in the 35-member Senate. The plan narrowly cleared that threshold in both chambers last year, and several Republicans who had supported the private option face primary battles this spring with opponents of the law.
“I think it’s going to have a hard road,” said state Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, who said he plans on voting for its defunding next month.
Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe acknowledged Cooper’s win makes it more difficult to win approval for the private option but said he remained hopeful that lawmakers would continue the program. Beebe has warned that his budget proposal for the coming year depends on savings from the private option, and would have to be cut if lawmakers halt the program.
“It was a difficult, difficult task to get three-fourths vote last time,” Beebe told reporters. “It’s still going to be a difficult task to get three-fourths vote, but it’s doable and the logic is there.”
More than 70,000 people have enrolled in the private option. Supporters of it prepared for the fight over the health care plan. One group, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, said in a statement that coverage for thousands was now at risk.
“To them, their newfound ability to visit a doctor, get a screening, or access preventive care isn’t a political game and it doesn’t have anything to do with what’s going on in Washington, D.C.,” said Rich Huddleston, the group’s executive director.
The Senate seat opened up in August when Bookout stepped down over the Ethics Commission’s ruling that he illegally spent thousands from his campaign on clothing, theater equipment and other personal items.
The loss of the seat comes as Democrats are gearing up for an election where they had hoped to rebound from recent losses. Republicans in 2012 won control of the state Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, and are aiming to take over the state’s other top seats in November.
The election also offered a glimpse of how bitterly fought this year’s election may be. State Democratic Party Chairman Vince Insalaco issued a statement Tuesday night in which he declined to congratulate Cooper, saying the party couldn’t “condone the negative and divisive methods he used throughout his campaign.”
State Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb on Wednesday called Insalaco’s comments “unsportsmanlike” and arrogant.
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