By Kris Kitto - 03/23/10 10:00 AM EDT
Sarah Huckabee was in New York getting ready to leave on a 10-day trip to Israel earlier this year when she got a call from Rep. John Boozman (R-Ark.).
He wanted her to be the manager of his Senate campaign.
Not only would Huckabee be out of the country for the next several days, but she would be coming back to a pretty full plate. She was the executive director of her dad Mike Huckabee’s political action committee, Huck PAC, and she was in the middle of planning her wedding in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, scheduled for May 25 — one week after the Arkansas GOP primary.
But Huckabee’s upcoming wedding, showers and related events were enough to give her pause. After all, her dad had already paid for the wedding and the invitations had been sent.
“I said, ‘John, I don’t think you understand — literally one week after the primary, I’m getting married, and then I’m going on my honeymoon,’ ” she recalls.
Boozman replied that “the most important thing you’ll do all year is get married” and reassured her that they would work around whatever other wedding-related events she needed to attend, she says.
Boozman’s first campaign crisis was averted. Huckabee accepted the job.
At 27, Huckabee may be one of the younger Senate campaign managers, but she got an early start in politics. She was 9 when her dad launched his first run for elected office.
“He didn’t really have much of a staff, so our family has always been very engaged and very supportive of my dad,” she says over the phone from Boozman’s Little Rock, Ark., campaign headquarters.
“I was stuffing envelopes, I was knocking on doors, I was putting up yard signs,” Huckabee says. “I’m absolutely my dad’s biggest fan, and anything he wanted to do, I wanted to be a part of.”
Up to and including her dad’s presidential campaign. When Mike Huckabee told national campaign manager Chip Saltsman that he wanted his daughter working in the operation, Saltsman recalls being less than thrilled.
“The last thing a campaign manager wants to hear is that you have to hire a candidate’s family members,” he says in a phone interview from his family’s farm in Leoma, Tenn.
Saltsman sat her down and asked her whether she was going to be his field director or the candidate’s daughter, warning her that when a decision was made, she couldn’t “go run to Daddy.”
She quickly proved to Saltsman that she has “a great political gut,” he says. He sent her to Iowa to lead the statewide operation in advance of the caucuses. Huckabee spent Thanksgiving and Christmas there, and she and Saltsman had Christmas-night dinner together at a Denny’s in Des Moines. Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses.
As the campaign went on, Saltsman recalls, Huckabee displayed some political skills of her own. After a rally he sent her to pick up 20 pies for the campaign staff. On the way back, she got stopped by a local police officer and had no license or identification on her. Without pulling an “I’m Sarah Huckabee,” she explained to the cop that she had to deliver the pies to Mike Huckabee and actor Chuck Norris, who had been stumping with the candidate. The officer asked if he could meet the two. Huckabee said yes.
“And she shows up with 20 pies and a cop,” Saltsman says.
Huckabee had settled into what she calls an ideal spot after the campaign. She was leading her dad’s PAC.
“I got to work for my hero and travel with him on a regular basis,” she says. “It doesn’t get much batter than that for a job.”
And even though the Huckabees and Boozmans have a long history, the thought of running Boozman’s Senate campaign never crossed her mind.
Boozman says she was his first choice.
“I went to her because no one understands the state better than she,” he says.
He should know. As a preteenager, Huckabee worked as a page in the Arkansas State Legislature for Boozman’s brother, Fay, a state senator at the time. Boozman’s sister-in-law Vickie then worked on Mike Huckabee’s gubernatorial campaign in 2002.
“Arkansas is a very small state, and it’s even a smaller field when you break it down to Republicans in this state,” Huckabee says. “When you have two families who are as engaged politically as we are, you just kind of see each other a lot.”
When Huckabee moved to Washington in 2004 after landing a job at the Education Department, she says Boozman and his wife, Cathy, became surrogate parents to her and her brother John Mark, who had also come to the city for a job in Boozman’s congressional office. She played on Boozman’s congressional softball team and became friends with his daughter Shannon.
Huckabee sees her new position as an opportunity to branch out.
“I kind of wanted to do something a little bit different outside of working for my dad,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong — I think he’s the greatest person in the world to work for … but I think I needed to do something outside of his umbrella, do something on my own.”
Her familiarity with her new candidate is evident when she starts talking campaign strategy. Asked about this year’s anti-incumbent, anti-Washington sentiments among the electorate, Huckabee rattles off Boozman’s biography by heart — his 24 years as an Arkansas optometrist-businessman, his status as the lone GOP member of the state’s congressional delegation, his having played football at the University of Arkansas.
“It doesn’t get much more Arkansas than being a former Arkansas Razorback football player,” she says. She says she’ll also rely on lessons learned from the 2008 presidential campaign — “People are just looking for honesty and authenticity more than anything” — to guide her through one of the country’s most closely watched congressional elections.
“It’s a good pick for Boozman,” says Karen Johnson, a former Education Department assistant secretary who hired Huckabee as her assistant and would later work with her in Iowa on Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign.
“She has incredible political instincts — she got her dad’s political instincts,” Johnson says, adding that Huckabee remains very grounded amid the opportunities that her work with her dad has afforded her.
Boozman, too, “is not pretentious at all,” she says. “I think it’s a good match.”
Campaigns have been good to Huckabee in other ways, too. She met her fiance, Bryan Sanders, while running her dad’s Iowa operation. Sanders had been with Sen. Sam Brownback’s (R-Kan.) presidential campaign until it folded, so she hired him and one of his colleagues. (“They were both kind of cute, [so I said,] ‘Well, we might be able to work something out’ — kidding a little bit there,” she says.)
But she considers campaign work more of a passion than a career, and with her thoughts moving toward starting a family, she doesn’t know whether she’ll stay in the field. (She also demurs when asked if she’d ever run for office. “I don’t ever say never,” she says.)
May is a big month for her — she’ll definitely be married by the end of it and could be setting her sights on the general election then, too.
“The short story is I have no idea what’s next,” she says. “Right now, I’m just trying to get to May 18 and make sure my guy comes out with the most votes.”