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BRENDA BLAGG: Another hat in the ring

Sanders expands GOP’s gubernatorial field by Brenda Blagg | January 27, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

Arkansas' 2022 gubernatorial race this week drew another candidate and a whole lot more attention.

With it came a foreshadowing of what Arkansas is in for between now and the election that will pick a successor for Asa Hutchinson, the state's current and term-limited Republican governor.

Even national media outlets took notice when Sarah Huckabee Sanders launched her campaign for Arkansas governor on Monday.

She did so with a polished video that touted her time in former President Donald Trump's White House and promised to fight the "radical left" that she said is now in control of Washington.

"Your governor is your last line of defense," the 36-year-old former White House press secretary suggested in the video.

Never mind that the race she is entering is, for now, actually against two other conservative Arkansas Republicans, Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.

The launch certainly suggested Sanders, the daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, will have a well-financed campaign, her dad's considerable support and the endorsement of her old boss to boot.

She has literally been talked about as a potential candidate for governor since before she left the White House to move back to Arkansas. It wasn't really a question of if but when she'd enter the race.

Her national identity and her own experience in running campaigns, including her father's bid for the presidency, has helped her gain front-runner status before the race has even begun.

For the record, both Griffin and Rutledge announced their candidacies much earlier, Griffin in August 2019 and Rutledge in July 2020.

Both are term limited in their current state offices and have been waiting their turn to run for governor when Hutchinson's term was up.

One more possible candidate, state Sen. Jim Hendren, yet another conservative Republican and immediate past pro tempore of the Arkansas Senate, is considering a bid for governor in 2022. He is being encouraged to run as an independent, which could make him a general election candidate against the winner of a Griffin-Rutledge-Sanders primary.

At least for now, no Democrat has announced for the race.

So, focus is on the triumvirate that is in the race and the fact that they will apparently be trying to out-conservative each other in the next Republican primary.

Their positions on many issues will likely be more alike than different as they target the same voter base. Even their early campaigns show similarities.

As Sanders' announcement suggests, she will try to run against the bogeymen from Washington's "radical left."

Rutledge, too, boasted of her own record of accomplishments against the "liberal left" as she reacted to Sanders' entry into the race.

Both Rutledge, who joined other Republican attorneys general in efforts last year to overturn presidential election results in several states, and Sanders are leaning on their respective connections to Trump.

All of the candidates seek to win support from the 60.6 percent of Arkansan voters who helped make Trump president in 2016 and the 62.4 percent of the state electorate that voted for him again in 2020.

How well that strategy works could depend on what happens to the Republican Party writ large in the coming weeks and months, particularly regarding the role of the twice-impeached former president.

The candidates obviously expect continued allegiance to Trump from Arkansas voters.

Meanwhile, note that both Rutledge and Griffin will push their direct, hands-on experience in Arkansas state government since 2015, when they took office alongside Gov. Hutchinson as Republicans swept all state offices.

Expect Griffin, a former two-term U.S. congressman from the state's 2nd District and an aide to then-President George W. Bush, to emphasize his deeper resume in both state and federal government.

He acknowledged as much when he welcomed Sanders into the race, saying he looks forward to comparing their experience, track record and vision for the future of Arkansas.

Some issues may eventually develop to separate one candidate from the others. Hendren's entry in the race -- or someone else's -- could certainly alter how the 2022 campaign goes.

For now, what the gubernatorial election looks to be is a personality contest, framed by the respective resumes of the candidates who are in it and impacted by how well each is financed.

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

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