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GREG HARTON: Hendren sets his sights on middle ground

by Greg Harton | February 21, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

Without entering Arkansas' gubernatorial race, Jim Hendren just made the 2022 contest to replace his uncle a lot more interesting.

Hendren's uncle, it's been reported once or twice, is Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is in his final term thanks(?) to Arkansas' term limits.

Hendren hails from Sulphur Springs in northern Benton County. If he moved any farther north, he'd be straddling the state line with Missouri.

From a political perspective, Hendren made it official last week that he's already straddling another line -- the one that exists somewhere between the Republican and Democratic parties in Arkansas.

Hendren, 57, has served as a Republican in the state Senate since 2013 and served three terms in the House of Representatives in the second half of the 1990s.

Hendren announced Thursday he'd changed his party affiliation from Republican to independent. The move is all the more unusual when one considers a little more than a month ago, he wrapped up his term as president pro tempore of the Arkansas Senate, a position he would not have held these days under any other affiliation than Republican. Before that, he spent four years as the Republican majority leader.

Hendren said Thursday the Jan. 6 riot at the nation's Capitol was the "final straw" in his political transition. According to Hendren, though, a transformation of his politics was involved. "I haven't changed," he said. "My party has."

Anyone paying attention over the last four or five years realizes the Republican Party has changed. The question is whether it can de-Trump itself or whether its pucker is more permanently affixed to a part of Donald Trump that's been shown far too many times.

Hendren says he's founded a group called Common Ground Arkansas to seek out and support leaders willing to work together in the state's interests rather than driving wedges between people.

It's a nice thought. Conventional politics these days often drive people away from middle ground, where compromise has a chance to be discovered. As far as the governor's race, hard-core partisans Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Leslie Rutledge are in a contest to see who'll lay claim to Donald Trump's supporters in the GOP. A newcomer Democrat, James Russell, says he's running, but it's fair to say he's a long shot. Hendren is considering a run for governor, but insisted last week's change is much broader than his own political future.

As Hutchinson declared last week in a CNN interview, Republicans will have to decide whether Trump is going to dictate the future of the GOP or whether the party's principles and other leaders will. It appears Hendren has decided where he thinks that train is headed.

Among alot of the most politically active partisans these days, middle ground is viewed as a lack of commitment. Hard-righter Sen. Bob Ballinger of Ozark declared "The Republican Party became better today" after Hendren's announcement. "Great men often fall, but it's never pretty and always sad," Ballinger declared.

A liberal community activist in Springdale, Irvin Camacho, declared after Hendren's announcement that he "will support the most Progressive Candidate for Arkansas Governor who actually wants to work hard. I will not support a conservative simply because it's easy to."

Arkansas is a Republican-dominated state. It seems if Democrats remain stubbornly committed to some progressive candidate who has little chance of winning, they might be as responsible for the election of Sarah Sanders or Leslie Rutledge as Trumpublicans.

Any future gubernatorial aspirations for Hendren could only be realized if there are enough Republicans and Democrats sickened by the state of modern politics to choose the middle ground. Even if that might be best for Arkansas' future, there are two well-funded parties that will be determined to make sure it doesn't happen.

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Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWAGreg.

Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWAGreg.

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