May 24, 2021 1:30:23 pm
Written by Jonathan Martin
For decades, Arkansas punched above its weight in politics and business.
In the 1990s, it was home to the president and the world’s wealthiest family. In the 2000s, three onetime Arkansans ran for president. A decade later, the state claimed its sixth company on the Fortune 500 list.
But Arkansas may be entering its most consequential period yet, as a test case for the future of the Republican Party.
Having undergone a lightning-quick transformation in the last decade from Democratic dominance to Republican rule, how closely the state clings to former President Donald Trump and his style of politics will offer insights about the party he still dominates.
Arkansas represents the full spectrum of today’s GOP.
There are Trump devotees fully behind his false claims of a stolen election and his brand of grievance-oriented politics. That faction is now led by former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the daughter of Mike Huckabee, the state’s onetime governor. More ideological, and less Trump-centric, conservatives include Sen. Tom Cotton.
And then there are pre-Trump Republicans, like Gov. Asa Hutchinson, hoping against hope the moment will pass and they can return the party to its Reaganite roots. Finally, some Republicans are so appalled by Trumpism, they have left or are considering leaving the party.
Perhaps most significant, each of these factions are bunched together in a state powered by a handful of corporations that are increasingly uneasy with the culture-war politics that define Trump Republicanism. In a meeting of Walmart’s Arkansas-based executives last month, a number of officials cited state measures limiting transgender rights to express concern about how such bills could hamper their ability to recruit a diverse workforce, according to a business leader familiar with the discussion.
“They’ve got to recruit people to this state, and this makes it harder for them,” said Hutchinson, alluding to transgender measures that he opposed in this year’s legislative session. “And there’s many in the base of the party that just don’t care,” he said. “They would rather fight the cultural war and pay the price in terms of growth.”
In the next year and a half, Sanders will road-test Trumpism in state politics as she runs for governor in a state the former president carried by 27 points last year. She will initially face a longtime friend and former aide to her father, the state’s Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who unsuccessfully pleaded with Trump not to endorse Sanders.
Then, if Sanders prevails, she may prompt a long-shot challenge in the general election from a Republican-turned-independent who left the party in disgust with Trump, and just happens to be Hutchinson’s nephew.
At the same time, Cotton and Hutchinson will be circling one another, perhaps in Iowa as often as in Arkansas, as they both eye 2024 presidential bids with very different bets about the future of the party.
“There will be a lot of complicated relationships,” state Sen. Jonathan Dismang, an influential lawmaker, said with maximum delicacy.
For many veterans of Arkansas politics, the intra-Republican competition is a full-circle moment, reflecting the state’s rapid shift from an overwhelmingly Democratic state to an overwhelmingly Republican one. This period is also eerily familiar to an earlier era when it was Democrats like then-Gov. Bill Clinton and former Sens. Dale Bumpers and David Pryor who were vying for supremacy. What’s different about today is how much politics in a small, mostly rural state at the intersection of the Deep South, Midwest and Southwest is shaped by a figure who has almost certainly never let the phrase “Woo Pig Sooie” slip from his lips.
“Arkansas Republicanism is defined by President Trump right now,” said Trent Garner, a south Arkansas state lawmaker who defeated one of the remaining rural white Democrats when Trump was first elected.
If there was any doubt about that after Trump’s romp in the state last year, it was erased in February when Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin abruptly pulled out of the 2022 governor’s race. A longtime political operative and former House member, Griffin had been collecting chits for what many here assumed was an inevitable run for the state’s top job after returning home from Congress in 2014 to serve as lieutenant governor.
Then Sanders, who has never served in elective office, made clear she would run for governor, and Trump quickly endorsed his former spokeswoman.
The combination of her connection to Trump, her father’s legacy and her own celebrity from being a Fox News regular made her seemingly unbeatable, according to a private survey Griffin took, Republicans familiar with the findings said.
Now running for attorney general, Griffin, an Army Reserve colonel, sought to put the best face on his climb-down. “If bio and resume was key to politics, then George H.W. Bush would’ve been reelected, Bob Dole would’ve won and John McCain would’ve won,” he said.
Hutchinson put a finer point on how Sanders had derailed Griffin. “It shows you the power of media and personality,” he said.
Sanders does still have competition for governor, particularly from Rutledge, a conservative who, in the friends-and-neighbors world of Arkansas politics, served as Huckabee’s general counsel as governor and in the same capacity when he ran for president in 2008.
“She’s never made decisions,” Rutledge said of Sanders. “It’s a big difference answering questions behind a podium versus making decisions behind a desk.”
She insisted primary voters would ultimately value her experience, and dismissed state Capitol speculation that she would eventually follow Griffin to the exits, perhaps to run for lieutenant governor or the state Supreme Court.
Asked about Rutledge’s criticism, Sanders ignored her rival and trumpeted her own record-setting early fundraising. “I take nothing for granted,” she said via text message.
Should Sanders emerge as the Republican standard-bearer, she may face a third-party opponent from well outside the pro-Trump orbit. State Sen. Jim Hendren, who left the GOP after the Jan. 6 riot, and Davy Carter, a former state House speaker, are both considering bids.
In separate interviews, they said they would not compete with one another in the same race. “I’m convinced that even in Arkansas, Trump and Trumpism is a slow-sinking ship,” said Carter, who as speaker helped push through Medicaid expansion. He said that a successful challenge to Trumpism would not happen unless liberals, moderates and anti-Trump Republicans “organize in one lane.”
Asked who he’d ultimately back in the governor’s race, Hutchinson said, “I expect to support the Republican nominee.”
But he acknowledged talking extensively with his nephew, Hendren, saying they share “the same frustrations” about the party, except that Hutchinson is determined to fight from within the tent. Offering some barely veiled advice for Sanders, he said: “Leadership is about bringing people along and not giving in to a lie.”
The governor, and most observers, are deeply skeptical that an independent could win statewide. Indeed, more than a year and a half before Sanders would even take office, many insiders have moved on to discussing what sort of governor she would be.
Would she repurpose Trump’s media-bashing and grievance-oriented politics to stay in the national headlines, and perhaps propel a presidential run of her own, or would she mirror her father’s more pragmatic approach to the office? While he is now known for his own Fox News and social media profile, Huckabee governed in the political center, even incurring the wrath of the far right, whom he labeled “Shiite conservatives.”
“I think she’s going to be very eager to prove that she’s a competent executive who cares about the state,” said John Burris, a state legislator-turned-lobbyist.
While shunning the state media and declining an interview for this story, Sanders has quietly reached out to state Republican lawmakers to discuss state policy and convey her desire to work with them, according to Garner.
Few in the state will be watching as closely as the business titans at companies like Walmart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt, the transportation and logistics giant, which are headquartered in the northwest corner of the state. Once the only Republican region of Arkansas — even Bill Clinton couldn’t win a House seat there in the aftermath of Watergate — it is now the state’s economic engine.
The area is booming, will gain about a half-dozen new state legislative seats in redistricting, and is becoming more diverse. As the local business alliance, the Northwest Arkansas Council, notes, from 1990 and 2019, the nonwhite population of the region grew from less than 5% to over 28%.
To lure more transplants, the business giants have showered the region with money, helping develop local attractions like the Crystal Bridges art museum, which was founded by Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton.
But this transformation is coming into conflict with the state’s shift right.
At the height of the transgender legislation debate this spring, Tom Walton, a grandson of Sam Walton, issued a statement decrying “policy targeting LGBTQ people in Arkansas” and spoke directly to what he saw as the threat presented. “This trend is harmful and sends the wrong message to those willing to invest in or visit our state.”
Hendren, who represents a swath of the region in the state Senate, said the business community would have to do far more to slow Arkansas’ sprint right.
“Continuing to do the same thing is going to lead to the same results,” he said, dismissing the companies’ strategy of sending the maximum allowable donations to candidates “and thinking that’s going buy you any loyalty.”
As for the Arkansans eying 2024, neither is willing to expound on their ambitions before the midterm elections. But both are attempting to carve out space for their potential bids.
Cotton is quick to jump on issues he knows will animate core Republicans — from introducing legislation to address anti-Semitic hate crimes, to lambasting what he calls “woke corporations” — while Hutchinson has become a frequent presence on the national television circuit.
“I don’t want to sit back idly and let the division grow greater and let our party just become more angry,” Hutchinson said.
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