- Associated Press - Sunday, June 7, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - An Arkansas lawmaker’s defection from the Republican Party following a split with GOP leaders over moving up the state’s primary elections isn’t a sign the party is in trouble of losing its majority status anytime soon. It does, however, illustrate growing pains Republicans are going to have to manage.

Rep. Nate Bell announced he was switching his party affiliation from Republican to independent days after Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed into law a measure temporarily moving up the state’s primaries from May to March next year. Bell, who chairs the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee, had been one of the most outspoken opponents of the move.

Though the timing offers a clue, Bell declined to elaborate on whether the fight over the primary change factored into his decision.

“I believe I can best represent my district and my values as an independent,” Bell said, declining to comment further on the reasons for the change.

Bell opposed the primary move, part of an effort to create a regional nominating contest that supporters dubbed the “SEC primary,” during the regular legislative session earlier this year and the revived proposal that Hutchinson signed after last month’s special legislative session.

Bell has argued the move would protect incumbents because it gives would-be challengers a shortened window before they have to make their candidacies official. He also argued the drawn-out campaign calendar it would create is anti-family, as candidates will need to spend more time on the trail.

“We’re about to add several months to that intense scrutiny, and we’re going to put it right over the holiday period when families should be families and not dealing with campaigns,” Bell said during a hearing on the proposal.

Bell joined several top Democrats in objecting to the way the primary shift was being considered, with Hutchinson putting it on the agenda for a special session that was intended to focus on luring a defense project to the state. The proposal faced procedural hurdles, including an attempt by members of Bell’s committee to delay a vote because there wasn’t an estimate on how much moving the primaries would cost Arkansas.

Politically, Bell’s decision to leave the GOP changes little for Republicans after an election where they enjoyed widespread victories in what had once been a Democratic holdout in the South. Republicans still hold 63 of the 100 seats in the House, and also enjoy a comfortable majority in the Senate. Bell has also announced that he’s not seeking re-election next year.

But the likelihood that his leaving the party is tied to tactics over the primary bill rather than an ideological split could be a warning sign to the GOP as it adjusts to its newfound majority status. The primary bill had the backing of the state’s top Republicans, including Hutchinson and the state GOP chairman, and was viewed by many as a boost to former Gov. Mike Huckabee’s presidential bid.

The fight over a bill that had the state GOP establishment backing could be an omen for a party that’s gearing up for a potentially more divisive fight in the coming year over the future of the state’s compromise Medicaid expansion, among other issues.

It also explains why Republicans were still careful to praise a lawmaker whose vote could still be crucial before his term ends, even if he’s no longer in the party.

“We’ve proven that we can work with Republicans, Democrats and independents to get the job done for Arkansans,” the governor said in a prepared statement last week. “As he continues to serve his district as an independent, I look forward to working with him and wish him well.”

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Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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