HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) - The two Republicans running for a south Arkansas congressional seat are campaigning on a promise to repeal the federal health care overhaul if elected, but have tangled over who has the best credentials to fight a law they both deride as "Obamacare."
Tommy Moll and state Rep. Bruce Westerman are seeking the GOP nomination for the 4th Congressional District, which stretches across southern and parts of western Arkansas. The winner in the May 20 primary will face Democrat James Lee Witt and Libertarian Ken Hamilton. The two are hoping to replace incumbent Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, who is challenging U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor this fall.
Moll, 31, is an energy investor who lives in Hot Springs who had previously worked for Jeffries Bank in New York and the Peterson Institute in Washington. Westerman, 46, is an engineer and forester who has served in the state House since 2011. He served as House majority leader in 2013 after Republicans took control of the Legislature in the 2012 election.
Moll has the lead in fundraising, though Westerman was barred from soliciting campaign contributions during this year's legislative session. Moll has reported raising more than $539,000 since launching his bid, and Westerman has raised more than $282,000.
Hoping to keep the seat in Republican hands, the two are running on similar promises focused on cutting back government regulation and trying to spur job growth in the district. Both also say their priority is repealing the federal health care law, a common theme among Republicans over the past two election cycles.
"My top priority is to repeal Obamacare, which is a law that takes away a lot of our freedom in terms of the health care we can receive because you have bureaucrats writing rules that we and our doctors have to follow," Moll said.
"I think we need to repeal it and implement real health care reform that's focused on health care and on doctors and patients, rather than on government bureaucrats," Westerman said.
Moll has criticized Westerman over his involvement in the debate about Arkansas' compromise Medicaid expansion, which was approved by the Legislature last year and reauthorized in March. Under the private option, Arkansas is using federal Medicaid money to purchase private insurance for thousands of low-income residents. The plan was crafted as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health law.
Moll criticized Westerman for co-sponsoring the private option legislation last year and for introducing and for introducing an alternative proposal that would have included an overhaul to the state's existing Medicaid program. Westerman later pulled his name from the private option legislation and voted against it. He never ran his alternative proposal before a legislative committee. This year, he led the unsuccessful push to halt the program.
"I'm the only candidate in this race who's always been opposed to Obamacare," Moll said.
Westerman dismissed Moll's criticism, saying he's been a consistent and outspoken opponent of the federal health law.
"It's almost laughable to me that someone would say I supported Obamacare," Westerman said.
The two have also sparred over their roots and past voting records. Westerman has criticized Moll, noting that he did not move to the 4th District until last year and has cited Moll's vote in a Democratic primary runoff in 2006.
Moll said he voted in the Democratic runoff that year because that was the best chance to have a voice in the election.
He later said in a statement released by his campaign that he was away from home at school that fall and does remember receiving an absentee ballot. He also noted that Westerman voted in a Democratic runoff in 1998.
Westerman said he voted in the runoff to vote in a circuit judge race where a Republican wasn't running.
Both Moll and Westerman have praised Cotton's push to split the farm bill apart from legislation funding the nation's food stamp program, but differ on how they would have voted on measures. Moll said he would have voted against a scaled-back Farm Bill that Cotton supported last year, saying most of it wouldn't have benefited the 4th District and citing its ethanol mandate.
Moll said he would have voted against the Farm Bill Cotton opposed in January.
"The way those two policies are logrolled together reeks of backroom Washington deals," Moll said, referring to combining the Farm Bill and food stamp measures.
Westerman said he likely would have voted for the stripped down version last year, but said he wasn't sure how he would have voted on the Farm Bill Cotton opposed in January.
"I think (Cotton's) strategy along with others to split it off was a good one because it's become a food stamp bill with a little bit of farm policy in it," Westerman said.