Scott Flippo’s victory over State Rep. John Burris last night has sent political waves throughout the political establishment in Arkansas, and may even make ripples across the country. Flippo, a first-time political candidate, defeated Burris, a sitting legislator, by 201 votes. The candidates were vying for a seat vacated by outgoing Senator Johnny Key. With no Democratic candidate on the ballot, Flippo will be unopposed in the November election and will be the next senator from District 17.
The debate in this contest largely centered around the Obamacare “private” option-Medicaid expansion. Burris — one of the architects of the expansion program — was proud of his support for the “PO,” trying to make the case here in Mountain Home that, without it, Baxter Regional Hospital would be in serious financial jeopardy. Burris recently told me he never shied away from his support for the Obamacare expansion (although he did tell voters on one voter’s guide that he opposed the program).
On the Flippo side, opposition to the Obamacare expansion was a central component of the campaign from the very beginning. Flippo also drew voters’ attention to Burris’s support of Common Core and his vote to extend term limits, but ultimately, the Obamacare expansion — and Obamacare in general — was the most prominent issue in the race.
After the results of last night’s runoff election were announced, a crowd of close to 100 supporters erupted in screams and applause, which eventually turned into chants of “Flip-po, Flip-po.” Flippo hugged his parents and some supporters before giving an emotionally-charged speech to the crowd, saying he was “at a loss for words:”
I’ve never felt for a minute that this election was ever about me. This was never about me. This was about us, this was about our district, this was about our state — this was about our future.
It’s an honor for me to be elected as the next state Senator. People like to know what my plans are after this election, and I’ll tell you it’s simply this: I’m going to go down there and get to work, put my nose to the grindstone…That’s exactly what I’m going to do when I get down there: put my nose to that grindstone, work to be the voice of common sense and reason, limited government, lower taxation, return liberties where they belong — which is to the people.
Burris and Flippo spoke briefly after the speech; Flippo said Burris offered his congratulations. Flippo also expressed his appreciation to the voters and vowed to fight for limited government when he gets to Little Rock:
I’m humbled. The people in District 17 made a statement tonight. They voted for smaller government, more accountability, and I’m humbled that they put their trust and their confidence in me. I know that trust and confidence aren’t earned in just an election, they’re earned over a period of time. And I would like people to know that I plan to go down there and, day in and day out, to make sure that I’m warranted of the trust and confidence they’ve instilled upon me.
As for what he thinks his election says about the future of the movement in the state, Flippo said:
I think it shows that the Republican Party and the conservative movement is alive and well. Listen, we’re conservatives for a reason — because it works. However, it’s not about immediate gratification — it’s about long-term sustainability, viability, and making the tough decisions.
The political significance of Flippo’s victory cannot be overstated. His success underscores the political toxicity of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion for Republicans, and it likely has implications for Republicans across the country who are flirting with a “compromise” Medicaid expansion. Although we don’t have final election reports yet, the most recent financial reports show Flippo was outspent by nearly 3-to-1, overcoming a wave of spending from special interest groups (mostly healthcare-related), hospital posturing, and dishonest attack ads from outside groups. Conventional wisdom would suggest that Burris, an incumbent legislator, should’ve won this seat handily.
In fact, without Obamacare expansion, Burris might’ve slid into the seat unopposed. But it’s a new day in Arkansas under the “Republican version” of Medicaid expansion — voters haven’t forgotten about the largest expansion of state government in recent history, and they’re holding legislators accountable.
The Flippo win marks the third Senate election that has been decided largely on the issue of the Obamacare-private option. Last Fall, now-Senator John Cooper unequivocally asserted himself as the anti-Obamacare PO candidate. Cooper was outspent by one primary opponent — who declined to take a real position on the PO — nearly 10-to-1. Cooper then proceeded to win the runoff against another Republican candidate who declined to take a position on the “private” option, and ultimately crushed Democrat Steve Rockwell in January after being outspent 3-to-1.
More recently, State Rep. Terry Rice unseated Senator Bruce Holland in a Republican primary. Holland has been solidly pro-Medicaid expansion in the legislature and even sent out mailers declaring his support for the Obamacare-funded program. Rice, on the other hand, has been a staunch, consistent opponent of the program and made Holland’s support for it a political liability. Now, on Tuesday night, voters have denied one of the key architects of the Obamacare PO a seat in the state Senate.
There’s no evidence that Americans For Prosperity-Arkansas got involved in this primary — or several other primaries around the state that involved pro-Obamacare PO legislators — but one group that made a dramatic impact was Commerce In Action. That group also played a role in the Cooper and Rice elections, but the Flippo race was different: founders Joe Maynard and Brenda Vassaur Taylor spent many days on the ground in the district, sent out multiple educational mailers to voters, and ran an aggressive ground game with the help of numerous grassroots volunteers. Vassaur Taylor passed along this statement about Tuesday night’s results:
Commerce in Action has counted it a privilege to be involved in helping SD17 elect its new State Senator who, like the people of the district, desire a smaller state government structured to improve life for all Arkansans.
The aftershocks from the Flippo win could be seen in the Arkansas political establishment across social media last night, with the always-diplomatic Rep. Nate Bell announcing that he was considering filing a bill to “drug test” legislators. Far-left Democratic leader Rep. Greg Leding expressed his frustration at Burris’s loss this way:
That tweet has since been deleted.
Perhaps Leding’s frustration stems more from the policy implications of the Flippo win: before last night’s results, private-option supporters were two votes short of securing the support they need in the 2015 session to continue funding for the program in the Senate (assuming no legislators change their positions from this year’s fiscal session). Now, with 9 senators making strong commitments to vote against the funding, the pro-PO camp
stands three remains two votes short of the required 75% threshold. Given the potential for two more Senate anti-PO pickups in the Fall — Linda Collins-Smith in District 19 and Blake Johnson who is challenging incumbent Senator Robert Thompson — there is a large possibility that Arkansas could become the first state in the country to opt-out of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion after opting in.
Senator Cooper, one of the many legislators who have been actively supporting Flippo, told me this morning he’s “very pleased” with the outcome and says Flippo will “make the people of District 17 very proud and serve them well.” Just after the final election results were announced last night, Cooper told me bluntly, “This is going to change the conversation.”