Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s run for governor an early test for Trump allies

Greg Nash

Former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s gubernatorial run is shaping up to be one of the first political tests for President Trump’s allies in a post-Trump world. 

Sanders is throwing her hat back into the political world as Republicans at all levels of government grapple with what the future of a GOP shaped by Trump will look like going forward.

She faces a primary field of established conservatives, including Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Carol Rutledge and Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, a George W. Bush administration alum. Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s (R) nephew, state Sen. Jim Hendron (R), is also said to be mulling a run. Hutchinson is barred from running in the 2022 race due to term limits. 

In a nearly eight-minute announcement video released Monday, Sanders rehashed some familiar talking points embraced by Trump’s base, taking a swipe at the news media in an apparent effort to appeal to the former president’s base.

“With the radical left now in control of Washington, your governor is your last line of defense. In fact, your governor must be on the front line. So today I announce my candidacy for governor of Arkansas,” Sanders said. 

The former press secretary also touted law and order, addressing politically motivated violence in recent years such as the breach of the Capitol earlier this month, though she did not label that mob as pro-Trump.

“We’ve seen violence in our streets, at a congressional baseball practice and at our Capitol. This is not who we are as Americans. To remain free, we must have law and order,” she said. 

While Trump’s allies have lauded Sanders’s staunch loyalty to the now-former president, her detractors are criticizing her for what they say is a non-existent relationship with the truth. 

“Cancel culture? She won? Sarah tried to ban me from the WH (using a doctored video) and lost in federal court. The Trump appointed federal judge wasn’t buying her lies. This campaign is going to be gaslit,” CNN’s Jim Acosta, who frequently sparred with Sanders in the White House briefing room, tweeted on Monday.

Griffin has also already hit Sanders’s announcement video, pointing out that her promise to “prohibit sanctuary cities and cut off funding for cities that deliberately violate immigration laws” was moot because Hutchinson tackled that effort in 2019.  

Rutledge released a statement responding to Sanders’s run, noting her own experience in state politics.  

“This race is about Arkansas’s future and who has a proven record and not merely rhetoric,” the state attorney general said.  

Trump remains popular with many Republicans despite cratering approval numbers, and Sanders’s close ties to the former president could boost her chances in the Wonder State. Trump easily won Arkansas in November, carrying the state by nearly 30 points. 

Sanders also enters the race with a strong name ID, not only through her previous status in the Trump administration but also because she is the daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R). 

All that has left strategists questioning whether she’ll be able to differentiate herself by touting an outsider status, as many pro-Trump candidates have done in the past.

“Trump people like to say that they’re anti-establishment and all of that, but when you are the chief executive, or worked for him, that is the establishment,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye. 

Rutledge also has ties to the former president, serving as the national co-chair for Lawyers for Trump. A group of eight Arkansas residents sued Rutledge earlier this month, accusing her of self-promotion and using taxpayer funds on a number activities, including working to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. 

The attorney general’s office has denied the accusation and said the lawsuit was “politically motivated.”  

“Sarah’s formal entrance into the race probably hurts Attorney General Rutledge the worst,” said Arkansas-based GOP strategist Terry Benham. “They compete for the same base, the Republican women. She’s certainly a Republican woman and is well liked by Republican women, as is Sarah.”

If either Sanders and Rutledge is elected, that person would be the first female governor of the state. Sanders touched on this in her announcement video. Sanders was the third woman to serve as White House press secretary, and Rutledge is the first woman to serve as the attorney general of Arkansas. 

“She says I’ve been tested under fire, managing one crisis after another. Those are all nods to the fact that certainly women running for executive office need to above all prove that they are tough enough to do the job,” said Betsy Fischer Martin, the executive director of American University’s Women in Politics Institute. 

Sanders’s campaign is also expected to be judged on her fundraising efforts and whether she will be able to tap into Trump’s grass-roots fundraising base. Rutledge brought in $195,000 in fundraising last quarter, while Griffin raised roughly $139,000 in the same period. Rutledge’s and Griffin’s head start on Sanders isn’t expected to hinder her in the money race.  

“My guess is that she’ll be able to have a very national base of fundraising that comes in $5, $20 at a time, which depending on what that number is, may allow her to separate from the pack,” Heye said. 

And while Sanders has a wide range of political experience, her 2022 bid is the first time she’s been a candidate, unlike Rutledge and Griffin. 

“You never know whether someone is a good candidate until they actually run,” Heye said. 

Strategists say it’s unclear what role exactly Trump’s political movement will play in the Republican primary and the race, which is more than a year away. 

Trump’s political operation has disavowed the Patriot Party, a political group in support of Trump, but some strategists say the emergence of the new group could threaten to divide the primary if it gains enough momentum. 

“If the Patriot Party goes and forms a new party, and they kind of do their own thing, I think that’s going to put Sarah in a tough spot because she’s going to have to make some decisions at that point,” Benham said.

Tags Asa Hutchinson Donald Trump Jim Acosta Sarah Huckabee sarah huckabee sanders Tim Griffin

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