- Associated Press - Saturday, November 14, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas’ senior Republican U.S. senator draws a primary challenge from a perennial candidate questioning the incumbent’s conservative bona fides. Contested races emerge for a state Supreme Court that’s been publicly bickering over its handling of a gay marriage case. And the fight over the state’s hybrid Medicaid expansion continues to loom over GOP contests for the Legislature.

The one-week filing period for state and federal offices in Arkansas last week sets the state up for heated primary and non-partisan judicial races when voters head to the polls in March. The fall general election will seem tame by comparison.

One of the few surprises during a relatively predictable filing period was North Little Rock businessman Curtis Coleman’s decision to challenge Republican Sen. John Boozman in the GOP Senate primary next year. Coleman, who lost to Boozman in the crowded Republican contest for Senate five years ago and lost the GOP gubernatorial primary last year, criticized Boozman as not being a strong enough conservative voice.

“I don’t know anybody that doesn’t like John Boozman. … I’m not arguing with that,” Coleman told reporters after filing. “We’re just at a place where nice is just not enough.”

For now, there’s little indication Coleman will prove much of a threat to Boozman’s re-election chances. The most support Coleman’s garnered in a primary is the 27 percent he received in last year’s gubernatorial primary, and his 2010 campaign still owes nearly $80,000 in loans and debts from that bid.

But it’s an unwanted distraction for Boozman, who faces soft poll numbers and a Democratic challenger who was able to raise more in three weeks than the incumbent did in three months. It’s a distraction Conner Eldridge, the former prosecutor trying to unseat Boozman next fall, hopes to take advantage of as he mounts his longshot bid against Boozman.

Boozman insists he’s not worried about his re-election chances.

“We’re working hard and we’re in a lot better shape than I was late January, when I filed five years ago, getting into the race late,” Boozman said after filing.

The bigger fight March 1 may come in the two contested races for the state Supreme Court. Circuit Judge Dan Kemp filed to run against Justice Courtney Goodson for the chief justice post, while Little Rock attorney Clark Mason filed to run against Circuit Judge Shawn Womack for a post on the court.

Kemp signaled he’ll make ethics a key issue in the race, calling for clearer recusal rules and a gift ban in the wake of former Judge Mike Maggio pleading guilty to reducing a verdict against a nursing home in exchange for campaign contributions.

The races could also be overshadowed by questions still surrounding the court’s handling of the gay marriage case earlier this year. Justices dismissed the appeal in June, hours after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Retired Justice Donald Corbin said in a recently published interview that the court late last year voted to strike down Arkansas’ ban, but withheld its decision - a disclosure that could become a focus in Goodson’s bid for leading the court.

The filings also underscored just how shaky the future of the state’s hybrid Medicaid expansion appear in the majority-Republican Legislature. Several Republicans who have supported the “private option,” which uses federal funds to purchase private insurance for the poor, again face primary challenges from candidates opposed to the expansion program. The program will be a factor in several open legislative races.

Those contests are underway as lawmakers are nearing a deadline to issue recommendations on the expansion’s future. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he wants to keep the expansion, but only if the federal government approves his plan to overhaul the program and rename it “Arkansas Works.” Hutchinson said he plans on endorsing candidates in some key GOP primaries.

The March 1 primary could determine whether the bigger challenge for Hutchinson’s plan to keep the expanded coverage may come from within his own party.

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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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