A proxy fight over guns, health care and the governor's second-term agenda is playing out in a Republican primary race for a state Senate seat in northeast Arkansas.
The incumbent, state Sen. Linda Collins-Smith of Pocahontas, is one of Gov. Asa Hutchinson's most familiar opponents within their party. Collins-Smith has bucked his directions on the state's Medicaid expansion program, so-called "bathroom bills" and concealed-carry gun legislation.
Her challenger, state Rep. James Sturch of Batesville, has cast himself as an ally of the governor. Hutchinson too faces an opponent in Tuesday's primary, gun-range owner Jan Morgan of Hot Springs.
Hutchinson lent support to Sturch through a quote that has been printed on a recent campaign mailer. However, the governor's political arm, AsaPAC, has not donated to either candidate in the Senate District 19 race.
Senate District 19 includes all or part of five counties -- Fulton, Randolph, Sharp, Izard and Independence -- stretching from the Missouri border to near U.S. 67.
The winner of the Republican primary will face Democrat Susi Epperson in the Nov.6 general election.
Collins-Smith, who operates a motel in the Pocahontas area, was first elected to the state House as a Democrat in 2010, but switched parties the next year, declaring that the Democratic Party had changed. She was elected to the state Senate in 2014, and serves as vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee, where she was part of a voting bloc of four staunch conservatives.
It was in that committee that Collins-Smith tried to sink Hutchinson's efforts to add a training requirement to legislation allowing concealed-carry of guns on college campuses in 2017. Declaring that "you can't be pro-gun enough in Arkansas," Collins-Smith proposed her own bill, called the True Campus Carry Act that would have allowed concealed-carry license holders to walk armed on campus with no additional training. Collins-Smith's efforts did not succeed, as the "campus carry" bill supported by Hutchinson became law.
She also tried unsuccessfully to pass a "bathroom bill" to block transgender people from choosing what public restrooms they use. Hutchinson said he did not see a need for the legislation.
It is "possible" that she would attempt to reintroduce the bathroom bill if re-elected, Collins-Smith said.
Sturch said he generally supported the idea of requiring people to use the public restroom of the gender printed on their birth certificates.
In an interview, Sturch declined to critique any specific legislation or action by Collins-Smith. However, when speaking about their differences in style, he appeared to make reference to the fact that she helped stall the campus-carry bill in committee last year, before the full Senate finally had the votes to pull it out of committee and onto the floor for a vote.
"I don't like the Washington-style politics where we shut down government and stop and stall every time we don't get our way," Sturch said.
Collins-Smith took objection to that remark, which she said she had also heard on the campaign trail.
"I don't work for the governor, I work with him," she said.
"Sometimes I agree with [Hutchinson] and sometimes I don't," Collins-Smith said. "Just like on Arkansas Works, he and I know I'm not ever going to vote for that. I think it's horrible policy, but other things I will."
Arkansas Works, the name Hutchinson has given to the state's expansion of Medicaid, provides health insurance to around 280,000 low-income Arkansans by using mostly federal funds to purchase plans from private insurers.
Sturch has voted for the program while in the Legislature, and he said it has been made better under the governor, who successfully pushed for a work requirement to be added to the program.
"I'm more at ease with it with regards to some of the changes that have been put in place," Sturch said. "We can moan and complain about it ... but we have to make it work."
In a recent interview at the state Capitol, Collins-Smith said that as a result of the state expanding Medicaid, "people have died. It's appalling to me."
Collins-Smith pointed to the Foundation for Government Accountability, a conservative think-tank based in Naples, Fla., as the source for her claim. In March, the group published a report critical of Medicaid expansion, asserting that the money states spent on their programs could have alternatively been used to reduce wait-lists for an optional Medicaid program providing at-home disability care. The report found that 74 Arkansans on that waiting list died since the state expanded Medicaid.
A spokesman for the state Department of Human Services said the agency is aware of individuals who died on the wait-list, but did not have any information about what caused their deaths. Most people on the wait-list receive other Medicaid services, the spokesman noted.
Sturch also said he supports the governor's proposal for a $180 million income tax cut for Arkansas' top earners in 2019. He noted that the governor similarly oversaw tax cuts for the state's middle and low-income earners during each of Sturch's first two legislative sessions.
Collins-Smith voted to cut income taxes in 2017 but voted "present" on a related measure to exempt military retirement benefits from income taxes while raising taxes elsewhere. She was more skeptical of the governor's plan, which she added was incomplete.
"I want to see a tax cut, not one that says, 'I'm going to cut over here and increase over here,'" Collins-Smith said.
Collins-Smith declined to say who will get her vote in the governor's Republican primary. Sturch said he will vote for Hutchinson.
If elected to the four-year Senate seat, Sturch said he wanted to push for legislation that would expand discounts for high school students to take some of their classes at community colleges and help them earn technical degrees.
However, Collins-Smith offered a rebuke to Sturch's record on school choice, bringing up his vote against legislation to create a pilot-program for school vouchers. She said Sturch has been declaring himself "the only school choice candidate."
Sturch denied using that language. He said he voted against the voucher pilot program because he heard from many of his constituents who opposed it, and he did not believe it was in the same vein as other bills giving parents more opportunities to pick their children's schools.
"I'm not against school choice ... it's kind of a misnomer because it's a voucher program," Sturch said.
He said he felt both he and Collins-Smith had both been running a mostly positive campaign. Collins-Smith said Sturch had been running "attack ads," pointing to a campaign mailer he had sent out that she said used an unflattering picture of her, instead of her official Senate photo.
SundayMonday on 05/21/2018
Print Headline: Battle over health care, guns marks Senate race