GOP senator fights to quash Trump-inspired challengers
Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) is looking to shut down Trump-inspired primary challengers as his under-the-radar race goes down to the wire.
Boozman snagged former President Trump’s backing in March 2021, got funding from his PAC and frequently highlights his support in ads. But that’s done little to stop his opponents from trying to link themselves to Trump, the party’s de facto leader.
The soft-spoken senator is hoping to cut his opponents — former NFL player Jake Bequette and gun rights activist Jan Morgan, the most well-known names among his challengers — off at the pass and avoid what could turn into a nasty runoff fight as outside money pours into the state.
“I think it probably would be heated because, No. 1, the entire strategy for the two challengers has been to be negative, right, to tear him down, to try to claw their way into the runoff, so that’s what they’ve been successful doing,” Robert Coon, an Arkansas GOP strategist, said about the dynamic of a potential runoff.
Coon said that while public polling has been scant, he thought Boozman was more likely than not to avoid a runoff. He added that the GOP senator “still has by far a larger name ID” that will benefit him if the primary goes into overtime.
Boozman, in a pair of brief interviews, said he is “working hard to avoid [a] runoff” and voiced confidence in his campaign.
“We’ve worked hard serving the people of Arkansas for many years and I’m very proud of our record, so I think we’re moving in the right direction,” Boozman said, asked if he would avoid a runoff.
To avoid a runoff, Boozman would need more than 50 percent of the primary vote during the May 24 election. Otherwise, the race turns into a one-on-one June 21 runoff between Boozman and whichever of his challengers comes in second.
A Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College poll, which appears to be the first public polling released of the primary field, has Boozman short of the percent needed to avoid a runoff, at 45 percent, with 18 percent of respondents undecided.
Notably, he was leading the rest of the primary field by 26 points, with Bequette coming in second with 19 percent and Morgan closely behind in third at 16.5 percent, with the poll having a margin of error of 4.3 percentage points.
A source close to the campaign said that they had “momentum” and “feel very confident in our position” heading into the election. Boozman told The Hill that his own internal polling had him higher, but that he was “very pleased with the numbers” in the public poll.
“I think when the undecideds all settle … we’ll be over 50,” Boozman said, referring to the 18 percent of undecided GOP primary voters in the Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College poll.
The Arkansas GOP primary, which has largely escaped national attention, is coming to a head in a month packed with Trump-fueled races.
That dynamic got kick-started in Ohio on May 3, where Trump-backed candidate J.D. Vance surged from behind to beat out a crowded field of candidates who largely supported the former president.
It will continue May 17, when Republicans fight it out in crowded fields in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, where Trump has backed Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) and Mehmet Oz, respectively, even as other candidates play up their own pro-Trump credentials.
The Arkansas race has echoes of those higher-profile primary fights, including pitting a more traditionally conservative Republican, Boozman, against more Trumpian challengers, who are trying to come at Boozman as being part of the GOP establishment.
“After John Boozman’s 20 years in Washington, our border is less secure, our military is weaker, and our education system is dominated by far left activists,” Bequette said in a statement to The Hill.
“While our country is in turmoil, John Boozman refuses to debate and campaigns from his basement while spending millions in attack ads. Arkansas is ready for something better; Arkansas deserves someone better,” he added.
But unlike those other fights, Boozman is facing challenges from the Trump wing as a relatively low-profile incumbent and, more importantly, one who got the former president’s endorsement early on.
Boozman’s opponents viewed an opening after the far-right website Gateway Pundit published a recording of Boozman saying that the results of the 2020 election were legitimate, putting him at odds with the former president.
Bequette, in a statement after the video’s release, tried to seize on the gap, calling Boozman “an anti-Trump RINO who only stands with President Trump where he stands to benefit.” Boozman spoke with Trump after the video was released and told The Hill that he believes his relationship with the former president is still in good standing.
“I think myself and the president have a great relationship, and we’re very appreciative of his endorsement,” Boozman said.
Boozman has also gotten the support from other high-profile Republicans in the state, including Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s former press secretary and the favorite to be the state’s next governor, and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who is viewed as having White House aspirations.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the chairman of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, traveled to Arkansas last month to speak at a state GOP fundraiser, where Boozman introduced him. And the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) has been working with Boozman’s campaign.
“Our team has worked closely with the Boozman campaign and will continue to do so,” Chris Hartline, an NRSC spokesperson, said in a statement.
Boozman’s campaign has outspent Bequette and Morgan and has more money in the bank for the final stretch. He has nearly $2.51 million cash on hand as of the last fundraising quarter and has spent more than $2.93 million since the start of 2021, according to Federal Election Commission data.
Bequette’s campaign, by comparison, had roughly $555,878 cash on hand at the end of the last fundraising quarter and has spent approximately $584,557 since he jumped into the race, according to FEC data.
Morgan has roughly $54,751 and has spent just over $497,315, according to FEC data.
But outside money has poured into the race and could swell further if Boozman is forced into a runoff election.
According to OpenSecrets, the race had the second highest level of outside spending, so far, for a Senate seat held by a GOP incumbent. The highest, Wisconsin, has a high-profile Democratic primary and, unlike Arkansas, is expected to be a battleground race in November, with Democrats maneuvering to try to unseat Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).
As of Sunday night, outside groups have spent more than $1.47 million in support of Bequette, with $152,950 in outside spending opposing him, compared to more than $1.1 million in support of Boozman, according to OpenSecrets.
Coon, the Republican strategist, said that the outside money is “the really big question” in a potential runoff.
“If Bequette were to make a runoff,” Coon added, “you would have to assume the big outside money that has funded him thus far will continue to do so, smelling some blood in the water and trying to capitalize on it.”
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