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BRENDA BLAGG: Uncharted waters

Hendren gives up party in search of ‘common ground’ by Brenda Blagg | February 24, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

Jim Hendren is convincing when he says he is focused on building an organization for the "politically homeless." A race for governor may or may not follow.

He first wants to restore the political center in Arkansas that he sees being shut out by today's extremist politics on the right and the left.

His vehicle will be Common Sense Arkansas, an organization Hendren is founding to pull Arkansas politics back toward the middle.

The state senator from Sulphur Springs (Benton County) officially left the Republican Party last week, fueling speculation that he will run for governor as an independent in 2022.

If ever an independent could be successful, 2022 might be the year, especially given turmoil within Republican ranks and the ever-growing distance between Republicans and Democrats.

Mostly, an independent Hendren can appeal directly to general election voters while avoiding what could be a rough and expensive Republican primary.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the former White House press secretary, and Leslie Rutledge, Arkansas' current but term-limited attorney general, are the announced Republican candidates for governor. Both are well financed and claim early backing among former President Donald Trump's supporters. Sanders has Trump's endorsement.

Hendren, on the other hand, has been critical of Trump and of others responsible for the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

That day, Hendren said, "was the final straw" that led to his leaving a party he said has strayed from his values "about decency, civility and compassion."

The conservative Hendren said he hasn't changed, but the Republican Party has.

His creation of the nonprofit Common Ground Arkansas is intended to counterbalance extremists in both the Republican and Democratic parties.

The organization will "work to find and support leaders willing to come together instead of continuing to push us apart," Hendren said in a video announcing his plans on Twitter.

Presumably, the organization's support could go to general election candidates, including independents and possibly some party nominees.

"Common Ground Arkansas will support candidates who put Arkansans first, regardless of whether those candidates run as Independents, Democrats or Republicans," according to the group's website (

The site initially features Hendren's announcement video and an invitation for visitors to sign up for the mailing list or "get involved."

Hendren said Monday that Common Ground Arkansas has stirred interest in far-flung places, including other states around the nation and even Canada.

But most of the response has come from within Arkansas, he said, estimating that 80 percent of the "thousands" of emails and other reactions he's gotten were from inside the state.

He is particularly pleased with the reaction from business leaders he said are willing to support the effort financially.

Almost all responses have been positive, despite one political friend's caution to Hendren that he'd "be destroyed" by what he's doing.

Hendren is not ready to identify who else is involved in the effort but expects the group, which will include "people you know," to roll out more detail on its objectives and strategies soon.

The former president pro tempore of the state Senate and veteran of the Legislature, Hendren acknowledged his many friends and family in the Republican Party, including his uncle, Gov. Asa Hutchinson. The governor is term-limited and cannot run again but plans to remain active within the party.

While Hendren said he respects those who are going to stay "and try to right the ship," he believes his own greatest impact will come outside of either political party.

The decision on an independent bid for governor can wait for now.

He might instead be helping other centrist candidates find their way to the ballot for state office or for the Legislature.

That's what is novel about Common Ground Arkansas.

Any independent candidate needs some kind of an organization behind him or her, one that offers support in terms of fundraising and people power, the way that traditional political parties do.

Common Ground Arkansas, if it organizes successfully, could potentially help any serious centrist candidate attract such support and funding from an organization made up of what Hendren calls the "politically homeless."

The idea is probably more attractive to Republicans trying to distance themselves from the former president and his Trumpist tactics, but both parties have their extremists.

In recent years, the parties' respective primary elections have tended to produce nominees pledged to hard partisan positions, not centrists who can and will work across the aisle.

"The best politics," Hendren said, "the ones that really serve the people, happen when we come together, when we collaborate."

That explains why Hendren is so intent on re-establishing common ground among Democrats, Republicans and those, like him, with no party at all.

"This is bigger than a governor's race."

Brenda Blagg is a freelance columnist and longtime journalist in Northwest Arkansas. Email her at [email protected]

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