The special election for the now open State Senate District 21 seat in the Jonesboro area has already drawn five candidates with more expected to file.

The seat is open after the resignation of Democratic Sen. Paul Bookout who was elected in 2006 following the death of his father, Sen. Jerry Bookout.  On Tuesday, two Democrats – Gene Roebuck and Steve Rockwell – filed, and on Wednesday three Republicans filed – Dan Sullivan, Chad Niell, and John Cooper.

And with the primary election in only a month, set for October 8, 2013, candidates are already jockeying for votes and taking some swings.

John Cooper’s campaign threw off the gloves in his announcement today taking aim at Chad Niell. According to the press release, Niell gave $2,000 to Democrat Dustin McDaniel for Governor and $500 to Democrat State Representative Harold Copenhaver in 2012.

“As I officially begin my campaign for State Senate today, I’m making a commitment to voters that I will fight for ethics reform and do all I can to clean up our state’s political process,” said Cooper. “It bothers me that some candidates have played both sides of the aisle in the past and now expect to buy their way into being the Republican nominee. Our elections shouldn’t be held hostage by the highest bidder.

“If a candidate is so ungrounded they desire to buy friends and influence, how can we depend on them to vote for us on important issues? Will their pocketbook and friends be more important to them than constituents?  My principles are not for sale, and I will never wavier from my conservative views and values,” he said.

Part of the charge from Cooper likely has to do with what one consultant described as “substantial” airtime being reserved in the Jonesboro television market for ads for Niell’s campaign.  Such a purchase could have a big impact on the low turnout special election primary.

“Chad Niell is a small business owner who knows how to create jobs. He will fight for lower taxes and to cut through bureaucratic red tape. Chad is strongly pro-life and a member of the NRA,” said Keith Emis, spokesman for the Niell campaign. “Chad is friends with many people of all political persuasions, but he is a solid conservative.”

Niell’s other primary opponent Dan Sullivan also offered some support saying he did not see Niell’s contributions as an issue.

“People involved in business are going to have to deal with both Democrats and Republicans everyday.  It seems like this is probably very common,” said Sullivan.

But if these early shots are any indication, this race could heat up quickly and might be a preview for the upcoming May primaries.

One potential topic that will likely be debated then and now involves the private option/Medicaid expansion passed by the legislature last spring.  It takes 27 votes in the Senate (75% of both chambers) to continue to fund the program with will be up for another vote in the upcoming fiscal session in Febraruy.  Last spring, it passed with only 28 votes, one of whom was Sen. Bookout so the race could narrow the margin.

When I spoke with Cooper, he was quick and to the point.

“I am opposed to the ‘private option’ and funding for it,” said Cooper.

Sullivan, who works in the health care industry, had a longer answer. He was clear that he opposes the Affordable Care Act passed by Congress, but thinks the state should be careful in its response.

“The people in this district want someone who will do everything they can to lessen the negative impacts of this legislation.  I oppose the federal law and will be watching as it begins to go into effect in October,” said Sullivan who commented that new information – most of it bad – appears to be coming out about the new law.  He said this will affect whether he would vote to fund the Arkansas private option plan during the fiscal session.

Niell has not yet made a decision on the private option and is still reviewing the law.

Filing closes for the race on Friday, September 6. The primary is set for October 8 and a runoff, which looks likely for both parties, will be November 12.  The general election will be January 14, 2014.

UPDATE – All three Republican candidates have now come out against the Private Option.

“Will vote against the Private Option if I can be shown how to separate it from DHS budget. DHS provides vital services to our most vulnerable people,” tweeted Sullivan on Friday.

“I do not support the private option because I am concerned about the cost to taxpayers and the cost of insurance available in the new insurance exchange. The exact cost of insurance through the exchange has not yet been determined, and in the weeks and months ahead there will be new information released in regards to those cost. I will follow these developments closely,” wrote Niell on Facebook on Tuesday.

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Jason Tolbert is the moderator for his opinion blog, The Tolbert Report. He can be reached by e-mail at Jason@TolbertReport.com. Follow him on Twitter: @TolbertReport.