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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: The independent path

by John Brummett | January 31, 2021 at 8:36 a.m.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders' video announcement of her candidacy regurgitated four years' worth of angry Trumpian resentment.

It presented, for the first time in an Arkansas gubernatorial candidacy, a wholly nationalized opening message. Her defining spiel would be suitable for any Trump-diseased state.

It contended that radical leftists from out-of-state will march through us like Sherman if we don't elect Sanders to defend us.

The message represented dramatic generational and philosophical change for Arkansas.

Beginning with Win Rockefeller and then Dale Bumpers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Arkansas governors have tended to varying degrees toward pragmatic centrism. They've sought to moderate the state's racist history and modernize its backward economy -- to join the mainstream of American states.

Now Sanders introduces not moderation, but resentment; not modernization, but regression; not pragmatism, but polarization, and not joining the nation, but circling our Trump flags against it.

She runs for governor to reset Arkansas clocks to Trump Time and turn calendars back to Orval Faubus and Jeff Davis.

Then there is the other broad theme conceivably in play. It's that Arkansas has a history of cursed independence in its political choices.

There is the famous one in 1968 when the state, on one ballot, favored segregationist independent George Wallace for president, cerebral anti-

war Democrat J. William Fulbright for U.S. Senate and transplanted liberal Republican integrationist Win Rockefeller for governor.

To live here was to see the logic. Vestiges of the illogically logical might still exist in the state.

You had national resentment in the Wallace vote, and there is the modern vestige to which Sanders panders.

You had pride in a home-grown national figure in the Fulbright vote, and there is pride in Arkansas that Sanders played combatively on the biggest and toughest national stage.

You had in the Rockefeller vote a longing for trans-partisan modernizing and moderating of the state. And it is here -- on any remaining vestiges of that -- where two backsliding Republicans meet.

State Sen. Jim Hendren is a long-standing Republican in Benton County. He was a fighter pilot. He is a nephew of Asa Hutchinson, whose governorship he's served with an evolving affinity for pragmatic solutions that keep government working.

His personal views have moderated largely through leadership responsibility and personal association. He's become friends with state Sen. Joyce Elliott, the liberal lion of Arkansas. He is a chief sponsor of the hate-crimes bill.

He goes on Twitter regularly to criticize his own party for Trump apologia and to decry the partisan-survival nonsense of contemporary politics. It's liberating, he tells me, to cast off such outrage.

Davy Carter is a bright and still-young moderate Republican from eastern Arkansas who once used legislative Democrats' support to wrest the House speakership from a traditional right-wing designee. In that job, Carter partnered with Mike Beebe, to whom he's sometimes compared, in defying odds to pass Medicaid expansion in the state.

He is now a big-time banker, but politics clearly beckons.

He, too, tweets with great regularity, most recently Wednesday night, outlining in a dozen or so posts a vision for the state, from manufacturing in Marianna to a fine-food mecca in Little Rock to the cycling capital of the United States.

He's all about commerce, to the point that he thinks shutdowns to protect against the virus were mistakes.

Hendren and Carter are thinking basically the same thing tactically.

It's that Arkansas has an independent tradition. It's that there are modern-day Rockefeller Republicans and still-vibrant Beebe Democrats with no place to go in a race with a polarizing Sanders on one side and an anemic Democratic candidate stymied by association with national liberalism on the other.

It is arguable that, in a general election, Sanders could rely only on the hardened but declining Trump base, which might be 35%, and that the Democratic candidate could get to no higher than 35%.

That would leave an available starting point of 30% or so for Hendren or Carter as a third-way independent.

Both could rise from there with money. I have emails from Democrats saying that, because of the passion in their disdain for Sanders, they'd abandon their party and donate to Hendren or Carter -- whichever -- for a likelier shot at stopping her.

The likelihood of any Democrat being held to 35% or below is greater than that of Sanders being held that low in a state that gave 62% to Trump. But there is a theory that many of those in that 62% would have voted for a viable alternative if they'd had one not burdened with a national Democratic Party they deem out of touch with the state.

It would be interesting to see if Hutchinson might endorse an independent Hendren and if Beebe might support an independent Carter.

The first step is for Hendren and Carter to put their egos into a big room and decide which of them, if either, it's going to be.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected] Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.


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