Sanders is a viable candidate only because of her role with Trump. Only 38 years old, she was a political consultant to numerous Republican campaigns before she joined the Trump White House. She has never run for office, and she has never served in government in a policy-related role. Even though she is the daughter of former governor and two-time presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, she would have been considered a long shot had she not held a nationally prominent role serving Trump.
That fact shows how important Trump’s backing is for many in today’s GOP. Trump has already endorsed her, touting her support for “borders,” law and order, and the Second Amendment. Even though she is running against two Republicans elected to statewide office, Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, Sanders is considered the one to beat because of her national prominence.
Sanders’s announcement video also shows where Republican voters stand today. The video could have been made for any federal office. It focuses on national issues and contends that the “radical far left” threatens American freedom with its “socialism” and “cancel culture.” Sanders argues that Democratic control of the federal government means a state’s governor is the last line of defense against far-left control of government. She thus turns her pugnacious stint as press secretary into the premier qualification for governor. Fighting against the left, not fighting for anything in particular, is what Republican voters want most.
Her positions on the issues are also significant. She leads with support for law enforcement and opposition to illegal immigration, pledging to eliminate funding for any city that “deliberately violates immigration laws.” She opposes the Green New Deal, a curious priority for a state governor but one that lets her include plenty of footage of conservative bête noire Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) in campaign ads. Only then does she turn to longtime Republican staples: fighting bureaucracy, lowering the cost of government and cutting state income taxes. This ordering suggests she believes cultural issues animate Republican voters more than fiscal concerns.
Neither of her opponents will disagree with Sanders on these issues. Rutledge has already released a statement in which she identifies herself as backing religious liberty and fighting for the unborn. Griffin’s campaign website includes pictures of him hunting and serving in the military. Time will tell, but so far it looks as though the three candidates will agree on virtually every issue.
That means the campaign will probably be fought over who is most able to lead and which issues should be prioritized. Griffin and Rutledge will tout their experience in government and their past accomplishments, while Sanders will contend that her experience taking flak from the liberal media positions her best to lead. Griffin’s biography also begins with his support for traditional GOP priorities such as creating jobs and building the economy, indicating where he will focus his campaign. Trump’s endorsement also looms large, as one can easily see him holding his signature rallies for Sanders as well as issuing well-timed statements of support. The betting right now is that Trump’s support will be enough to push her over the line.
That might be premature. Trump looks strong among Republican voters now, but that might not be the case on May 24, 2022, when the primary is scheduled to take place. The looming impeachment trial is an obvious potential game-changer, but Trump also faces state-level investigations that might uncover damaging evidence and change many Republican voters’ views. Griffin and Rutledge also come with their own strengths from their prior electoral histories. Griffin served for four years as a congressman in a seat based in Little Rock before he became lieutenant governor. This means his television ads have already aired in the city’s media market, which covers the vast majority of Arkansas homes. The top two candidates will go on to face off in a runoff, requiring the winner to get a majority of the vote to prevail. That might not be a Trump-backed candidate by next May.
Trump-favored candidates will contest many Republican primary races in 2022 as they battle for control of the GOP. Sanders’s candidacy immediately makes Arkansas ground zero in that confrontation.