The Other Upset: Arkansas Obamacaid Architect Loses State Senate Primary

The focus of most political observers has been on the primary elections in Virginia last week, and for good reason. But a timezone away, there was another important primary taking place in Arkansas. There, one of the Republican architects of the state’s “private option” Medicaid expansion proposal, state Rep. John Burris, was vying for a state Senate seat that was also being contested by newcomer Scott Flippo. Like Virginia, candidate spending was lopsided with the presumed favorite Burris heavily outspending the challenger. But in the end, the race appears to have hinged on one thing above all else: Burris’ Obamacaid stance.

Burris — one of the architects of the expansion program — was proud of his support for the “PO,” trying to make the case here in Mountain Home that, without it, Baxter Regional Hospital would be in serious financial jeopardy. Burris recently told me he never shied away from his support for the Obamacare expansion (although he did tell voters on one voter’s guide that he opposed the program).

On the Flippo side, opposition to the Obamacare expansion was a central component of the campaign from the very beginning. Flippo also drew voters’ attention to Burris’s support of Common Core and his vote to extend term limits, but ultimately, the Obamacare expansion — and Obamacare in general — was the most prominent issue in the race.

The result?

Scott Flippo defeated state Rep. John Burris in Tuesday’s GOP runoff for state Senate District 17. Burris is a former House Republican leader. There’s no Democrat running for the seat in the November election.

Flippo had cast the race as a referendum on Arkansas’ private option plan to use federal Medicaid funds to purchase private insurance for the poor. Burris helped craft the plan and urged House members to approve it as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health law.

Flippo had the backing of Republican lawmakers who are vowing to reject funding for the program next year.

Arkansas has long been cast as a red state model for implementing Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, but it seems the political sands are shifting there as the practical and fiscal realities of the “private option” come into sharper focus.

Even in a state like Missouri where Obamacare has not yet been implemented by the legislature, the political consequences of a Republican trying to implement Obamacare are stark. (emphasis mine)

But as [Republican state Rep. Noel] Torpey outlined it Friday, the politics of Medicaid in Missouri are straightforward. Three years ago legislators voted on health exchanges, also part of Obamacare and the means by which millions of Americans since have bought health insurance.

In the Missouri House, four representatives who voted for that subsequently lost races for the Senate.

“They lost on that vote and that vote alone,” Torpey said.

Legislators considering upcoming elections haven’t forgotten the risks of being portrayed as supporting the ACA.

“And it’s effective in campaigns, unfortunately,” Torpey said.

Well, duh. It’s effective in campaigns because folks don’t want the Obamacare exchanges or the Obamacaid expansion, despite how hard some elected officials are pushing for it. Politicians can rebrand Obamacaid as a “Medicaid transformation” or an “alternative” or strap Medicaid expansion spending bombs to substantive Medicaid reforms and say the reforms won’t come without Obamacare, but that doesn’t change the fact that the issue is political poison in a Republican primary, whether state legislators ultimately pass it or not.

Which is why last week’s Arkansas primary is so important. Even in a political environment where one would think local Republicans could get away with an Obamacare vote, it turns out it isn’t that easy. Burris found that out the hard way. Who’s next?