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How Sarah Sanders can succeed in her State of the Union response

Former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks before former President Donald Trump at an America First Policy Institute agenda summit at the Marriott Marquis in Washington, Tuesday, July 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R-Ark.) will give the Republican response to President Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday. Most Americans will recognize Sanders from her time as President Trump’s White House press secretary, where she sparred with reporters from the briefing room podium — making her uniquely adept to deliver a rebuttal in a high-stakes setting.  

As the youngest sitting governor in the country and first female governor of Arkansas, she also will pose a stark contrast to 80-year-old President Biden, while representing a new generation of the Republican Party.  

However, the choice of Sanders illustrates the party’s continuing struggle to escape Trump’s grasp. While House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will tout Sanders as the future of the GOP, it’s clear that part of the appeal in selecting her was to not aggravate the former president. GOP rising stars — and potential 2024 primary opponents — such as Govs. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) or Glenn Youngkin (R-Va.) would likely have set Trump off on a Truth Social tirade.  

While giving the rebuttal address is a major opportunity to shine in prime time, the role has often seemed more like a curse. The most memorable State of the Union responses are typically the ones that go awry, like Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) infamous 2013 response when he awkwardly paused to take a swig from a water bottle. 

After the anticipated “red wave” failed to materialize in the 2022 midterms, and following McCarthy’s chaotic bid for the speakership, the State of the Union response is a chance for Republicans to recalibrate their message ahead of 2024. Rather than focus on culture-war grievances that might animate Fox News viewers, Sanders must offer solutions to the most pressing problems facing Americans — especially young voters.  

By 2024, millennial and Gen-Z voters could make up as much as 40 percent of the voting population, according to some estimates. Continuing to aggressively go after the “woke” culture-war issues risks further repelling younger voters and harming Republicans’ prospects in elections moving forward at a time when some voters believe the GOP has become extreme or unserious

Republicans need to keep their eye on the ball by conveying a clear message that they can deliver results — especially on the economy.  Ahead of the midterm elections, inflation topped the list of concerns for young Americans, just as it has for months in polls of all demographics. Biden is expected to paint a rosy economic picture and likely shift the blame for his misguided policies, but the reality for most Americans across the country is painful. Recent polling shows nearly 8-in-10 Americans rate the current economy as poor or only fair, and 75 percent say they are very concerned about the price of food and consumer goods.  

At a time when the GOP appears to be struggling with an identity crisis, the State of the Union response will provide the party a much-needed opportunity to redefine its direction on the national stage and present the American people with an articulate policy platform. While it might just be a blip on the radar for most Americans, it’s a start toward creating a unifying message going into 2024. 

Maybe Sanders can defy the odds and give a truly memorable, effective State of the Union response. But perhaps the best-case scenario for Sanders will be delivering a forgettable speech with no major gaffes. 

Sarah Matthews is a Washington-based political and communications adviser who previously served as deputy press secretary for President Trump. Matthews resigned from the Trump administration on Jan. 6, 2021, following the attack on the United States Capitol. Prior to joining the White House, Matthews worked on Capitol Hill for several years, including as press secretary for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. She now works as a senior adviser at Merrimack Potomac + Charles. Follow her on Twitter @SarahAMatthews1.  

Tags Biden GOP Kevin McCarthy Marco Rubio Mitch McConnell Republicans sarah huckabee sanders Sarah Matthews State of the Union White House Young voters

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