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How Obamacare shook up the Arkansas GOP governor’s primary

Asa Hutchinson versus Jan Morgan in the Arkansas Republican governor primary, explained.

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Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

In the latest test of whether just about anybody can win a Republican primary in the Trump era, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is facing a primary challenge on Tuesday from a former television journalist most famous for establishing her gun range as a “Muslim-free zone.”

Polling indicates Hutchinson isn’t in any danger of being toppled by Jan Morgan, who is another in the long line of mini Trumps to appear in the GOP primaries this year, a tradition that has produced some winners (Pennsylvania gubernatorial nominee Scott Wagner) and more than a few losers (West Virginia’s Don Blankenship).

As in those races, Trump himself ended up endorsing the more conventional candidate here, sending out a tweet on Hutchinson’s behalf the day before the primary.

But Morgan could still secure up to 30 percent of the Republican primary vote on Tuesday, perhaps not a total surprise in a state where Trump is still well liked (54 percent approval). In an ironic turn, Hutchinson may prevail as much thanks to his more moderate positions, most notably his support for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, as the tacks to the right he’s taken to ward off Morgan’s challenge.

In Arkansas, four years after the state pioneered a new version of Medicaid expansion, it actually pays to be the Republican on the side of Obamacare.

Who is Jan Morgan?

This is Jan Morgan. Her website calls her “the 1st Lady of the 2nd Amendment.”

Jan Morgan for Governor

Morgan attracted some national notoriety in 2014 when she said her gun range in Hot Springs, Arkansas, was a “Muslim Free Zone.” The Arkansas Times reported in 2015 that Morgan’s business had turned away a father and son who were actually Hindu, not Muslim.

From the Kansas City Star:

“I refuse to train the next islamic (sic) terrorist,” Morgan wrote on her site, adding that “countless others” contacted her to express support.

She criticized Hutchinson for giving local prosecutors discretion in interpreting the state’s open-carry law.

In a blog, Morgan wrote that the “Second Amendment is my line in the sand,” adding a Greek phrase, Molon Labe, meaning “come and take them.”

Morgan is basically attacking Hutchinson from the right on any issue. On plenty of matters, she’s successfully dragged the governor to the right with her, as the Arkansas Times documented: Hutchinson has attacked “transgender” bathrooms and said he wants to defund Planned Parenthood, just for starters.

But there is a bright line between Morgan and Hutchinson: Medicaid expansion. Morgan wants to end the state’s participation in that part of Obamacare, which has covered about 300,00 of the state’s poorest residents. Hutchinson, on the other hand, is one of several Republican governors to go along with the program.

And maybe most shocking of all, it appears the Republican primary voters are actually on Hutchinson’s side.

How Medicaid expansion has shaken up Arkansas politics

To be clear, Hutchinson isn’t going to prevail in Tuesday’s primary solely because of Medicaid expansion. In the best poll we have of the race, from Talk Business in late April, Hutchinson led with 58 percent of the primary vote to Morgan’s 31 percent. The governor should be fine, probably because he’s popular overall: Morning Consult puts his approval rating at 57 percent. He has a healthy advantage any way you look at it.

But Medicaid expansion is one of the clearest policy disagreements between Hutchinson and Morgan, who is also running on a political outsider, clean up the corruption — dare I say, “drain the swamp” — message. Morgan thinks Medicaid expansion should be ended. Hutchinson doesn’t.

Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe might have pioneered the Arkansas model of using Medicaid expansion dollars for private insurance, but Hutchinson has still affirmatively sought to keep it in place, even as he modified the expansion and added work requirements this year with the Trump administration’s approval.

Hutchinson certainly isn’t the first Republican governor to resign himself to Medicaid expansion. But his commitment to it, in the face of a primary challenge from the right, is a pristine example of the changing politics of health care. Even with a conservative insurgent running against him, Hutchinson isn’t going to back away from a policy that has helped the Arkansas uninsured rate drop from 16 percent in 2013 to 7.9 percent in 2016.

He has the support of the Arkansas electorate and Republican primary voters. A Talk Business poll found that a plurality, 42 percent, of GOP voters support Medicaid expansion, far more than the 26 percent who oppose it and a significant improvement from 2014, when 45 percent of Arkansas Republicans opposed the expansion.

It’s also worth noting that another one of Hutchinson’s achievements this year is getting $26 million from the federal government to expand child care assistance to cover another 4,000 children from poor families, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.

So in a Southern state, in a primary divided ideologically between an insurgent with a radically pro-gun, anti-Muslim message and a more pragmatic governor who has expanded the social safety net, Arkansas Republicans seem likely to choose the latter. Trump himself actually supported both of those agendas as a candidate (if not as president). But it seems one of those platforms will find more purchase with Arkansas voters Tuesday.

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