- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 14, 2014

JONESBORO, Ark. (AP) - Republican John Cooper won a northeast Arkansas state Senate seat in a special election Tuesday, giving Republicans an extra seat in the Legislature. The race was widely viewed as a bellwether for this fall’s political contests.

Cooper defeated Democratic nominee Steve Rockwell and will replace Democratic state Sen. Paul Bookout. Bookout resigned last year after he was fined by the state Ethics Commission for spending thousands in campaign funds on personal items such as clothing, home theater equipment and dozens of other personal items.

Complete but unofficial reports showed Cooper winning 57 percent of the vote.

Cooper is a retired AT&T; manager and Rockwell is a Jonesboro businessman. Each had won party primaries scheduled after Bookout left office last August. The Arkansas Ethics Commission ruled Bookout spent more than $53,000 from his re-election bid, fined him $8,000 and reprimanded him.

The Senate race, covering District 21, centered on the key issue facing lawmakers when they return for next month’s fiscal session: whether to continue the state’s “private option” plan to expand Medicaid.

Under the plan approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe last year, Arkansas is using federal money to purchase private insurance of thousands of low-income residents who are newly eligible for Medicaid under the federal health overhaul. The plan was approved as an alternative to expanding Medicaid’s enrollment under the federal law.

Backed by Democrats, the private option sharply divided Republicans between supporters who called it a conservative way to reform Medicaid and opponents who said the plan was no different than the expansion envisioned under the federal law they opposed. Continuing the private option will require three-fourths votes in the House and Senate in February.

The special election was overshadowed partly by Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Darr’s decision to step down over ethics violations tied to his campaign and office spending. Darr, a Republican, announced Friday night he would resign Feb. 1 after lawmakers had threatened impeachment if he didn’t leave on his own. The ethics charges against Darr were similar to those against Bookout.

Rockwell, 59, who manages his family’s publishing companies, said he would have supported the private option and plans to fight for its continued funding if elected to the state Senate. Rockwell cited state officials’ arguments that the private option would save the state money by cutting hospitals’ costs for uncompensated care.

Cooper, 66, said he believed the private option would be too costly for the state in the long term and said he didn’t believe supporters’ arguments that it would save Arkansas money.

The election could offer an early sign of what to expect in the November election, where Democrats hope to rebound from recent losses. Republicans won control of the state Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction and swept all four of Arkansas’ congressional seats in the 2012 election. This fall, the GOP hopes to retake control of the governor’s office and topple two-term U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor.

Republicans now hold 22 seats in the Senate and Democrats have 13.