LITTLE ROCK — Tuesday’s primary in Arkansas will test the divisions among Republicans who hope to complete takeover of the state’s top offices this fall as the party grapples with contested primaries in dozens of local, state and federal contests.
In a far cry from past years where Democrats were so entrenched that the election for many offices was effectively decided in the spring, Republicans face contested primaries in five statewide races and two congressional races. Democrats, meanwhile, have only one contested primary for state office and none for Congress.
Secretary of State Mark Martin has predicted that 20 percent of the state’s 1.6 million registered voters will cast a ballot in this year’s primary. By late Friday afternoon, more than half of those ballots were being cast in Republican rather than Democratic primaries.
"It’s like a role reversal," said Hal Bass, a political science professor at Ouachita Baptist University. "The Democratic primary used to be where all the action is and it used to be the Republican primary was just pro forma."
The primary could put a spotlight on the split between establishment candidates and tea party- backed hopefuls, a relatively new divide for a party whose divisions once fell more along geographical than ideological lines.
"This is really the first time we’ve seen a statewide version of that," said Jay Barth, political science professor at Hendrix College.
It’s a new posture for Republicans, who over the past several years have gone from the minority party in Arkansas to the one controlling both chambers of the state Legislature and all but one of the spots in the state’s congressional delegation.
Several races feature establishment-backed candidates who enjoy healthy financial and organizational leads over their lesser-known rivals. The most prominent is the governor’s race, where former Congressman Asa Hutchinson is running against Little Rock businessman Curtis Coleman. Likewise, the Democratic gubernatorial contest pits former Congressman Mike Ross against substitute teacher Lynette Bryant.
The most prominent split for Republicans is over the state’s "private option" Medicaid expansion, where Arkansas is using federal Medicaid money to purchase private insurance for low-income residents.
The plan, crafted as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health law, has taken center stage in several legislative races between Republicans who backed the idea and opponents who are vowing to repeal it next year. It’s even popped up in races that have nothing to do with health policy, like state treasurer and auditor.
The private option is even causing political headaches for Republicans who voted against the program. State Rep. Bruce Westerman, who was one of the most outspoken critics of the private option and unsuccessfully led the push to defund the program this year, has been fending off criticism from energy investor Tommy Moll as the two seek the GOP nomination for south Arkansas’ 4th Congressional District.
The two have been sparring over a television ad Moll is airing that casts Westerman as a supporter of the federal health law, citing his sponsorship of the legislation for introducing an alternative proposal that would have included an overhaul to the state’s existing Medicaid program. Westerman later pulled his name from the private option legislation and voted against it. He never ran his alternative proposal before a legislative committee.
The Republican primary for central Arkansas’ congressional district has also led to candidates sniping over each other’s conservative credentials. Banking executive French Hill, who enjoys a heavy fundraising and organizational advantage, has been targeted by state Rep. Ann Clemmer and retired Army Col. Conrad Reynolds for his past support of a Little Rock sales tax measure and for contributing money to former Treasurer Martha Shoffner’s re-election bid in 2010. Shoffner, a Democrat, resigned last year.
Hill, in turn, has criticized Clemmer for supporting the budget bill for the private option last year and has criticized Reynolds over his campaign’s finances.
In the race for attorney general, the candidates are running on the same theme of fighting the federal government but are sparring over who has the plan to do so. The race pits attorneys Leslie Rutledge, David Sterling and Patricia Nation against one another.
The race for lieutenant governor has U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin against state Reps. Andy Mayberry and Debra Hobbs. Griffin had decided against seeking re-election last year, but said the state’s No. 2 constitutional office would give him a chance to serve while being close to his family. Mayberry is running primarily on a vow to abolish the lieutenant governor’s office.