They had a state Senate election the other day in Jonesboro, the candidates spent money and campaigned, and it may not have mattered. One candidate had an "R" beside his name, and the other had a "D" beside his.
The Republican candidate, John Cooper, received 4,314 votes, and the Democrat, Steve Rockwell, received 3,227.
Why should a state with three million people care how 7,541 people voted in one Senate district? Start with the fact that the election was further evidence of Arkansas’ shift to the Republican Party. In the 24 state Senate elections pitting a Republican against a Democrat since the election of President Obama and the passage of Obamacare, Republicans have won 19 races and the Democrats have won five.
Put it another way – Cooper collected 57.2 percent of the vote. In those 24 state Senate races, Republicans have won a combined 55.4 percent of votes cast. In the three 2012 congressional elections where Republicans faced Democrats, the Republican candidates won with 56 percent, 55 percent, and 60 percent of the vote.
Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once wrote, "All politics is local," but I’m not sure that’s the case anymore. In Arkansas, a member of the non-Obama party is tending to win, and typically with something like 55 percent of the vote. Maybe Cooper and Rockwell didn’t have to go to the trouble and expense of campaigning. Maybe all they had to do was put their names and party affiliations on the ballot.
The other big reason this election matters is because of what it means for state policies – specifically, the private option. That’s the program passed last year that uses Medicaid dollars via Obamacare to buy private insurance for Arkansans with incomes at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty line.
The idea mostly was conceived by Republican legislators, none of whom like Obamacare. However, they figured it was the law of the land, the money probably is going to be spent somewhere, so the prudent thing to do is to accept that money for Arkansas while changing the program to reflect more conservative values. Instead of enrolling people in Medicaid, a government program, as Obamacare intended, most of those people are getting private insurance.
As of Jan. 13, more than 70,000 people have completed the enrollment process. Another 7,700 will be covered through traditional Medicaid because of their individual medical circumstances. It’s not known how many of those 78,000 had no coverage before the private option was created, but based on their incomes, it’s safe to assume the vast majority did not.
Gov. Beebe says the state needs the federal dollars – $89 million – that come with the private option. Hospitals say they need those dollars to offset the costs of paying for low-income, non-Medicaid patients who often can’t or won’t pay their medical bills. Obamacare cuts the federal dollars hospitals receive for those patients because it was anticipated that more of those patients would be on Medicaid. Three hospitals closed last year in Georgia, a state that, unlike Arkansas, turned down the money.
The issue has split Arkansas Republicans. It was some Republicans’ idea. But opponents, also Republicans, consider it yet another government expansion and a capitulation to Obamacare. There are no free dollars, they say, and the nature of government programs — even "creative" ones — is to grow.
This has been a huge political deal. Seventy-five percent of both houses of the Legislature must appropriate funding every single year. It passed with two votes to spare in the House and one in the Senate last year. One of those votes was former Sen. Paul Bookout’s, whose seat Cooper, a private option opponent, now occupies. The private option was the defining issue of the Cooper-Rockwell campaign, and the guy against it won.
These things tend to snowball. Sen Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, who barely voted yes last time, now says she will vote against funding it, which means it’s one vote short unless someone switches from a no to a yes. Some of the Republicans who voted for it have drawn opponents from their own party.
In a few weeks, legislators may vote to remove the mechanism that is insuring 78,000 Arkansans, most of whom probably were not covered by anything beforehand. Or they could change it – maybe even improve it.
But however this session ends, the private option’s future remains shaky at best. There’s a good chance that, in November, more private option opponents will be elected – probably with about 55 percent of the vote.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.