Arkansas GOP shifts focus to governing after midterm sweep as Democrats try to assess future



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LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Arkansas Republicans shifted their focus Wednesday to governing a day after sweeping the state's top offices, while Democrats tried to assess their future.

Republicans won all statewide and federal offices on the ballot Tuesday in Arkansas, and party officials touted the wins as evidence that they had finally realigned a state long considered a Democratic holdout in the South.

"The people of Arkansas realized the Republican Party reflected their views and values more than the Democratic Party," state GOP Chairman Doyle Webb told reporters.

Tuesday's election was highlighted by Republican Congressman Tom Cotton unseating two-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor and GOP nominee Asa Hutchinson defeating Democratic rival and fellow ex-congressman Mike Ross in the race for Arkansas governor.

Republicans focused primarily on dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama in those and other races in Arkansas, a strategy they've used over the past two elections and one that Democrats said was too much to overcome.

"(Democrats) tried to differentiate, tried to distinguish themselves from the White House and the White House policies, but it was a pretty strong tide," said Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, who was unable to run for re-election because of term limits.

In an email to party supporters, state Democratic Chairman Vince Insalaco said the midterm "was nationalized and people voted their concerns on a local level."

Webb and Beebe both said whether Republicans' gains are long term depends on how the party governs.

"If they're successful and they govern wisely and they're able to bring people together and solve these problems, then it creates a greater likelihood of a generational thing," Beebe said.

Webb said that means delivering on the GOP's promises to cut taxes and limit government.

Hutchinson shifted quickly into transition mode Wednesday, tapping outgoing state Senate President Michael Lamoureux as his chief of staff. Lamoureux's exit from the Senate means a special election will be needed to fill the two years remaining on his term.

"Michael is a trusted friend and is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable leaders on the operation of state government," Hutchinson said in a statement. "I am grateful for his willingness to be part of my future administration."

The biggest question Hutchinson faces as he prepares to take office is whether to continue Arkansas' "private option" Medicaid expansion, which uses federal funds to purchase private insurance for the poor. More than 211,000 people are receiving coverage through the program.

Hutchinson has stopped short of saying whether he'll push for the program's reauthorization next year, saying he wants to evaluate its progress and wants answers on how the state will eventually pay its share for the expansion.

Beebe said he believes Hutchinson "going to have his work cut out for him" on the private option. Several opponents to the private option were elected to the Legislature Tuesday night, but Beebe warned that ending the program could have political consequences.

"If you're going to throw 200,000 people off of insurance, you're going to create a huge cadre of folks who might have been sitting on the sideline or voting the other way ... that all of a sudden are going to be energized," Beebe said.


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