Primary night in Arkansas was a good one for establishment Republicans, Asa Hutchinson especially. His 70 percent showing was more than enough to dispel any notion of an intra-party, hard-right populist revolt — even if his big win was against an under-funded (essentially non-funded) opponent. Whatever Trumpian impulse may still throb in Arkansas GOP hearts was overpowered by not only a Trump endorsement of Mr. Hutchinson (the day before the balloting, probably a bit too late to truly penetrate to the party base) but by the governor’s record, not one to alienate any save the most reactionary conservatives.
Mr. Hutchinson’s good night did not stop with his own numbers, though alone they would have solidified beyond title his standing as the titular head of his party. As it happens returns from down ballot cemented his position as a leader to be crossed warily — as the defeat of two incumbent state senators demonstrated.
Both Linda Collins-Smith of Pocahontas and Bryan King of Green Forest had vociferously opposed Mr. Hutchinson’s continuation of the Medicaid expansion funded through the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”), drafted and initially enacted by then-Governor Mike Beebe, a Democrat, and a cluster of enterprising Republican legislators. Mr. Hutchinson was himself archly critical of the program — until becoming governor. He renamed the expansion — Voila! — and used its hundreds of millions of federal dollars to offset the tax cuts he had pledged as a candidate.
Senate and House Democrats were always in bloc and in sync with both Governors Beebe and Hutchinson on enacting and then renewing “Arkansas Works,” as the incumbent governor styles it. Yet its reauthorization was an annual ordeal centered mainly in the House, though the tension this year was greater in the Senate, arch-conservatives rebelling every step of the way. Tighter enrollment criteria and the imposition of a “work” requirement (courtesy of the Trump White House) helped carry the day for Mr. Hutchinson’s side, while Collins-Smith and King remained unmoved. Their defeat (by opponents Mr. Hutchinson had encouraged) coupled with the latter’s lopsided primary victory could significantly erode the already fading legislative resistance to the Medicaid expansion.
To that end, the governor isn’t through: the ballots were still warm when he endorsed a House ally, Majority Leader Mathew Pitsch, in the pending Republican runoff for a Senate vacancy in Sebastian County. Pitsch’s rival, Frank Glidewell, an outspoken opponent of Mr. Hutchinson’s health program, led the ticket in the three-man primary for a full term, as he did in a quirky special primary to fill a vacancy until January. Other prominent Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, have joined the governor in siding with Pitsch.
Not that Mr. Hutchinson won them all last week: Dean Elliot, his (unstated) choice in a central Arkansas GOP Senate primary, was crushed by Mark Johnson, scion of the late, legendary “Justice Jim” Johnson. But Johnson, as did Elliot, has signaled a willingness to play the governor’s game on Medicaid, a la Ballinger.
Alongside Mr. Hutchinson’s favor, other factors were in play, notably geography. Collins-Smith won her home county and surrounding areas handily but was swamped by her opponent in much larger Independence County, his home turf. (A similar tableau saw Judge Bart Virden retain his seat on the Arkansas Court of Appeals; Faulkner and Conway counties overwhelmingly supported a native son against a challenger from Baxter County and its neighbors to the north). Grudges and rivalries — personal and ideological, friendly but sometimes not — created obstacles and opportunities. King and the winner of the primary, Rep. Bob Ballinger, openly dislike one another. The third man, and third-place finisher, in the Sebastian County contest was Denny Altes of Fort Smith, who once defeated Pitsch, who later defeated Altes’s son. The senior Altes has endorsed Glidewell.
Democrats and Libertarians are contesting some Senate seats but not enough to wrest the chamber from the GOP. With his party assured a continued Senate majority, one numerically more sympathetic to him, Mr. Hutchinson can devote more of his attention to other aspects of his second administration — assuming, of course, he has one. For he, too, must pass the November test. It is widely assumed, even by the most loyal of Democrats, that he will. Voter turnout for Mr. Hutchinson’s primary was almost double that in the race for the Democratic bid.
So this Jared Henderson fellow, the bright and energetic gubernatorial nominee of the once-dominant Democratic Party of Arkansas: what is he trying to do? Win, of course; credit him with sincerity, though it be heavily laced with realism. He and his party’s diminished base are looking beyond 2018, believing that vistas can be changed.