- Associated Press - Thursday, August 20, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - State Rep. Mike Holcomb said Thursday he’s switching to the Republican Party, criticizing Democrats for their support of Planned Parenthood as part of the reason why he became the first Arkansas legislator to leave the party since a GOP sweep in November.

The two-term lawmaker from Pine Bluff said he’ll seek re-election next year as a Republican, and singled out Democrats’ opposition to Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s decision last week to cut off Medicaid funds to Planned Parenthood. He also touted his opposition to same-sex marriage.

“I believe it’s my job to represent the views of those that elected me, and I can best represent them by being a Republican,” Holcomb said at a news conference at the state Republican Party headquarters.

Hutchinson’s order to terminate the state Department of Human Services’ Medicaid contract with Planned Parenthood came in response to secretly recorded videos released by an anti-abortion group showing Planned Parenthood officials describing how they provide fetal tissue from abortions for medical research.

State Democrats’ vote over the weekend calling on Hutchinson to restore the funding “has shown me I cannot in good faith continue as a member of that party,” Holcomb said.

Hutchinson, appearing with Holcomb at the news conference, also criticized Democrats’ stance, saying it showed the national party “has now subsumed the state Democratic Party.”

Holcomb won re-election with 58 percent of the vote, though Republicans swept statewide and federal offices in that November election. The GOP already holds a majority in the state House and Senate, so Holcomb’s switch gives Republicans 64 of the 100 seats in the House.

Holcomb is the second state legislator to change parties this year. Rep. Nate Bell of Mena announced in June that he was becoming an independent; the ex-Republican is not seeking re-election next year.

State Democrats said they weren’t surprised by Holcomb’s defection, saying he had caucused and voted with Republicans in the last legislative session. The party also pushed back on Holcomb’s criticism of the party’s positon on Planned Parenthood.

“If standing against women’s health care including Pap smears, breast cancer screenings, STD testing and treatment, pregnancy testing, prenatal checkups, or the equality of all Arkansans is important to Rep. Holcomb, then he’s found a good home in the Republican Party of Arkansas,” Party Chairman Vince Insalaco said in a statement.

The party said it was confident Holcomb will face a Democratic challenger next year.

Holcomb had split with top Democrats on some issues. In 2013, he supported a pair of abortion bans - for 12 weeks and 20 weeks into a woman’s pregnancy - that were enacted by the Republican-led Legislature despite vetoes from then-Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe. A federal appeals court in May upheld a judge’s ruling striking down the 12-week ban as unconstitutional.

However, Holcomb voted against a voter ID law that same year that was backed by top Republicans in the state. The Arkansas Supreme Court struck down the law last year.

Holcomb also has supported the state’s “private option” Medicaid expansion, which uses federal funds to purchase private insurance for the poor and has sharply divided Republicans.

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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