Arkansas Governor Interprets Primary: Vindication Of Healthcare Plan, Trump's Test, & Dark Money

Mar 2, 2016

Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R-AR) speaking to the Political Animals Club at the Governor's Mansion in Little Rock.
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

Arkansas’s governor was in a buoyant mood the day after Election Day despite his pick for the Republican presidential contest falling flat. Governor Asa Hutchinson told the Political Animals Club on Wednesday that figuratively he and his version of Medicaid expansion were on the ballot in a handful of state legislative contests – and he prevailed. 

He also told a packed house of politicos lunching at the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock that a cloud of dark money in state Supreme Court races has him backing a change to an appointment system.

Hutchinson said Republican primaries in eight state legislative districts can be seen as successful referenda on his plan to change and continue Medicaid expansion. There were just three state Senate primary contests: State Sen. Jane English/State Rep. Donnie Copeland (NLR/Maumelle,Sherwood), State Sen. Eddie Joe Williams/R.D. Hopper (Cabot), and state Rep. Lance Eads/Sharon Lloyd fought for the Springdale seat left open by Jon Woods. English, Williams, and Eads have all indicated support for Medicaid expansion and had the governor’s backing.

“They were all paying a heavy political price and being attacked,” said Hutchinson. “I put myself at risk, I held a news conference with them at my back and I said the attacks are wrong and misleading.”

English, Williams, and Eads all won. House races the governor had an interest in broke three to two in his favor. He said, “Arkansas Works was on the ballot, it  now has a boost of momentum.”

Had the night gone otherwise with challengers to Hutchinson’s incumbents prevailing (Donnie Copeland almost did) April’s special session on Arkansas Works would have a much different political headwind, said Hutchinson.

“It would have been a chilling effect on Arkansas Works had we lost those key races. Because then legislators could say, ‘hey I can’t vote for Arkansas Works I might be targeted next time and I’ll be defenseless.’ Now they understand they can do the right thing,” he said. “It’s also a matter where they see the governor will stand behind us.”

The current plan for over 200,000 low-income Arkansans is known as the private option. The governor calls his proposal to use federal dollars from the Affordable Care Act “Arkansas Works.”

Presidential Contest

A noticeable pep and looseness from Governor Hutchinson, who seemed to enjoy getting a tough question or two from MC Rex Nelson, was on display when he quipped his way through a question about what degree of support he would give Donald Trump if he becomes the GOP nominee.

NELSON: If Donald Trump is the nominee will you actively campaign for him in this thing in the fall?

HUTCHINSON: He rephrased that question, tightened up that question. I usually get asked will you support him? I will support the nominee of the party. He asked the question will I actively support the nominee of the party. We’ll see, I have a state to run. We’ll see the level of engagement.

Those lines from the governor drew laughter from himself and those in attendance, and a round of applause.

The governor began the Trump-related section of his remarks by crediting the candidate for attracting tens of thousands of new voters.

“People who hadn’t voted before, thought it was useless, came out and for whatever reason they showed up at the polls and that’s good for the body politic,” said Hutchinson.

“Way to go Donald Trump,” he said to laughter, “that’s the reality.”

Governor Hutchinson does not concede the nomination to Trump, “I expect to be engaged and helping define the future direction of our party when we select that nominee. “U.S. Senator Marco Rubio from Florida had the backing of Hutchinson and nearly all the state’s top Republicans but came in third place.

“We’re still scrambling around while the picture is coming into a clearer focus on the Democrat side,” Hutchinson said referring to former Arkansas First Lady Hillary Clinton.

But he said that after Super Tuesday, the nomination contest has entered a new phase that puts new expectation on Trump.

“The test for him is that he has convinced those who are angry, frustrated with the federal government,” said Hutchinson. “What he has to do now is convince mainstream Republicans, he has to convince America, that he is capable of presidential leadership.”

He continued, “If he shifts his demeanor, his structure, his comments, his discipline so that he can come across and show that he can lead…then you will see more of the establishment saying he will be an acceptable nominee.”

Hutchinson warned that an unbridled, unrefined Trump could sink GOP chances elsewhere on the ballot.

“If he continues down a divisive path then there will be greater concern about the down ticket races, governor races, and senate races,” said the Republican governor. “What’s that going to do in impacting those candidates? Are we going to lose senate seats or gubernatorial seats?”

Speaking afterward to reporters the governor also pulled out some barbs first deployed last week. He said Trump’s rhetoric has at times been “divisive, offensive, beneath the dignity of a president.”

When asked whether Trump is capable of the change Hutchinson thinks is necessary for him to be suitable for the Oval Office he said, “He has demonstrated the ability to be disciplined at times. It only lasts a while,” Hutchinson said while chuckling, “So we’ll just have to wait and see. But that’s his burden and he has an opportunity to seize the moment.”

One of the only moments when Governor Hutchinson wasn’t beaming was when he referenced the influx of outside spending from anonymous PAC donors, so-called dark money, spent in two races for the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Last year he floated the idea of ending the public vote on the justice positions and replacing it with an appointment system. The governor told reporters he’s still interested.

“I do expect that to be on the agenda in the general session next year. Matthew Shepherd sponsored it previously. I’ve talked to him and I fully expect him to bring that legislation back,” he said. “I would be supporting that kind of change.”

When asked if any laws should be passed attempting to regulate special interest campaign influence the governor said, “I think the [U.S.] Supreme Court has said, that it is difficult to do with freedom of speech, so I think a better direction to go would be to change the Arkansas way of selecting our Supreme Court judges.”

Among those in attendance for Hutchinson’s remarks to the Political Animals Club were former Governor Jim Guy Tucker, House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, and the governor’s new pick to head the Department of Human Services Cindy Gillespie.