LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Primaries across the country this year are being seen as a test of former President Donald Trump’s influence on voters and the Republican Party, but in solidly red Arkansas, Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ victory in the GOP primary for governor was no surprise.
At 39, Sanders ran an unprecedented campaign for the job once held by her father, former Gov. Mike Huckabee. Boosted by an early endorsement from Trump and a record-breaking $14 million campaign war chest, Sanders cruised to an easy victory Tuesday night over former talk radio host Francis “Doc” Washburn.
In November, Sanders will face Democrat Chris Jones, a Baptist minister and MIT-educated nuclear engineer who emerged from a crowded Democratic primary field as an early frontrunner.
No matter who ultimately wins, the general election will be a historic one; Jones would be the state’s first Black governor, Sanders would be the first woman elected to the post.
The competition bows out
Sanders originally faced stiffer competition for the Republican nomination in the form of the state’s attorney general, Leslie Rutledge, and Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin. Established conservatives with statewide name recognition, Rutledge and Griffin both eventually bowed out of the governor’s race in favor of running for other statewide offices.
Sanders’ focus mainly on national GOP talking points made for an easy target for her primary challengers who accused her of ignoring statewide issues.
But those attacks backfired on her challengers who were then seen as too narrow-minded.
“That was enough for the Arkansas voter,” says political scientist Heather Yates with the University of Central Arkansas. “They don’t really require Sarah Sanders to talk about local issues, and so her entire campaign is about Arkansas’ place in the national spectrum.”
Some believe Sanders’ true ambitions lie in a higher office. That’s led to a crowded race for lieutenant governor with six Republicans, including former primary challenger Rutledge, vying for the largely ceremonial seat.
Sanders’ brand of Republican politics would also be very different than the incumbent governor, Asa Hutchinson, who has sought to make a name for himself on the national stage as a more centrist alternative to the Trump wing of the GOP.