HARRISON, Ark. — State Rep. John Burris was among the most vocal opponents of the federal health care overhaul among the Republicans in the state House. Now running for a north Arkansas state Senate seat, however, he finds himself being portrayed as a cheerleader for the law he derides as "Obamacare."
"John Burris chose to work for Obama rather than Arkansas," one of dozens of pieces that have been hitting mailboxes over the past weeks claimed. This about a lawmaker who once blocked a state agency's entire budget in an attempt to prevent it from being able to set up the online insurance exchange the health care law required.
The spots ahead of Tuesday's primary runoff are part of an effort by opponents of Arkansas' compromise Medicaid expansion to make an example of Burris, one of the architects of the "private option." Arkansas was the first state to win approval for the plan, which uses federal Medicaid funds to purchase insurance for the poor, and has been touted as a way for Republican-leaning states to implement a key part of the health care law.
"We believe this election is not just a referendum on where Senate District 17 stands on Medicaid expansion, but where Arkansas stands on Medicaid expansion," said Scott Flippo, who is running against Burris in Tuesday's runoff.
Burris, 28, who is on leave as political director of U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton's Senate campaign, admits the private option is a defining issue but says there's more to the race than that.
"For (Flippo), this race is about a single issue," Burris said. "For me and my supporters, and I think the majority of voters, the race is about a lot more."
The race is essentially the latest round in the fight that's been waged among Republicans since the private option was first approved last year. Democrats unanimously backed the idea, but it sharply split the GOP just months after they won control of the Legislature. Burris, who helped craft the program, pitched it to lawmakers as a conservative approach that other states could model.
"This is about as far away from Medicaid expansion as you could possibly get," he told House members last year.
More than 170,000 people have signed up for subsidized health care under the program, and other Republican-leaning states have followed suit with similar plans.
But the future of the program remains unclear after voters delivered a mixed verdict in the May 20 primary in several races that similarly focused on the private option. Supporters of the program who were handed defeats include state Sen. Bruce Holland, who was defeated by state Rep. Terry Rice. But Sen. Bill Sample, a Hot Springs Republican who voted for the law, survived a primary challenge from a rival who vowed to repeal the program.
A defeat for Burris, who was House minority leader in the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions, would complicate the private option's prospects even further since keeping it alive will require three-fourths support in the House and Senate next year. There's no Democrat running for the Senate seat in the fall.
Flippo, 34, has the backing of lawmakers who vow to defund the program next year. An outside group that lobbied against the private option, Conduit for Action, has been sending mailers out attacking Burris for supporting the program.
Another surrogate for Flippo's campaign has been Curtis Coleman, an opponent of the private option who lost the Republican gubernatorial primary last month. The only county Coleman won was Baxter, located in the state Senate district.
Flippo echoes the complaints other opponents of the program have made, saying the state won't be able to afford to afford the program once it eventually has to pay part of the cost and insisting that the state doesn't have as much control over the program as supporters say it does.
"We are beholden to a federal government that does nothing but deals in broken promises and spends money they don't have to begin with," Flippo said.
The push against the private option comes as the state and hospitals are pointing to signs that it is working, including a reported drop in the number of uninsured patients at many Arkansas hospitals. Burris has accused Flippo of misrepresenting the private option and ignoring the benefits to hospitals in the region.
Burris admits championing the program made him an easy target in the primary, but said he doesn't have any regrets about his position.
"It would be easy to be against the private option. I just don't think it's the right decision," Burris said. "And I want to be there to advocate for it and ask folks to make the hard choice but the right choice. That's what we're in office to do. The cheap seats are full."