Arkansas Republican Party elects Wood as new chairman, rejects closed primaries

Supported by Sanders, agency secretary defeats Dunklin

Joseph Wood gives a speech before being elected as the Republican Party of Arkansas’s new chairman Saturday at the Wyndham Riverfront hotel in North Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

The Republican Party of Arkansas elected Joseph Wood, secretary of the state Department of Transformation and Shared Services, to serve as its party chairman Saturday.

Wood, who was backed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, defeated Sarah Dunklin, the party's 1st Congressional District chair, in a vote by the party's State Committee at the Wyndham Riverfront Hotel in North Little Rock.

The committee had 371 voters and proxies present at the beginning of the meeting. Republican officials declined to release the vote count for each candidate.

The race for party chairman began last month after former chair Cody Hiland resigned from the post. Sanders appointed him to the Arkansas Supreme Court to serve in place of Justice Robin Wynne, who died in June.

The party's first vice chairman, John Parke, began serving as party chairman and first vice chairman under the state party's rules after Hiland's resignation. Parke told party members he would continue to serve as chair for the next two weeks as Wood transitions out of his role in Sanders' administration.

After the meeting, Wood said his employment with the state will end two weeks from Monday.

In a speech after the vote, Wood, 58, called on party members to work together as a unified front.

Speaking to a packed ballroom in the hotel, he recalled how in 2007 only 20 to 40 people showed up for the party's State Committee meeting. Republicans now have a supermajority in both chambers of the Arkansas Legislature in addition to holding the governor's office and all the state's other constitutional offices.

Wood said he would like to see the party continue to expand by electing more city, county and school board officials.

"We still have work to do, but we only do that if we're working in sync," he said.

Before joining Sanders' administration in January, Wood served as Washington County judge. Last year, he made an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor.

Wood has served two terms as the state GOP's treasurer. In 2008, he lost a bid for state party chair to Doyle Webb.

While speaking before the election, Wood said the Republican Party "has the answers for what is ailing the country, for what is ailing this state."

"It is to encourage freedom to make sure our kids can have an option and choice when it comes to school," he said, referring to the LEARNS Act, Sanders' education package passed by lawmakers earlier this year.

Wood was raised in a Chicago orphanage and adopted at the age of 10. He grew up with two brothers and a sister in Chicago, where his mother was an educator and his father was a construction worker. He has published two children's books, "Saving Joey" and "Adopting Joey," which deal with foster care, adoption and his life story.

In a nominating speech for Wood, Sanders described him as a "fighter for conservative causes" and a "man of true integrity." The first-term governor said Wood will make "an absolutely amazing leader for our party, for our state, for our Christian values."

In her speech before votes were cast, Dunklin voiced support for Sanders but told party members, "The fact is, the choice today of who will lead our party is yours."

Dunklin has served as the party's Desha County chair for three terms and is in her second term as the 1st Congressional District chair.

With the 2024 election approaching, Dunklin said she would draw on her leadership experience within the party to guide the state GOP. Dunklin stressed the importance of the election, saying, "We are living in a world where good is said to be evil and evil is said to be good."

"If we don't win 2024, our country is lost. This is not the time for someone to learn on the job," said the 44-year-old family farmer from Dumas.

As secretary of the Department of Transformation and Shared Services, Wood receives a salary of $172,000 a year, according to the Arkansas Transparency website. When asked if he would take a salary as chair of the party, Wood said Saturday, "I'll do whatever the will of the party is."

In December 2022, Hiland was elected chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas to succeed Jonelle Fulmer, who had served in the post since December 2020 after Sanders signaled her support for Hiland to be the party chairman.

The State Committee also voted Saturday against a measure to close Republican primary elections in Arkansas to voters who are not registered with the party. Opponents of the measure said closing primaries at this time could cause confusion among voters who have traditionally voted Republican but are not registered members.


Several other top Republicans gave speeches at the committee meeting, including Arkansas Supreme Court justices Rhonda Wood and Barbara Webb, both of whom are running for chief justice of the high court next year.

Wood described herself as the "most experienced conservative justice" and said she "was the first to open the door to the conservatives on the Arkansas Supreme Court."

She was first elected to the Supreme Court in 2014 and was reelected to Position 7 for an eight-year term last year. Before joining the high court, she sat on the Arkansas Court of Appeals and served as a circuit judge.

Webb said she has been a "consistent conservative" on the court and cited her experience working as a justice, prosecutor and private-practice attorney.

Webb was elected to the Supreme Court in 2020. Before sitting on the high court, she served as chief administrative law judge at the Arkansas Workers' Compensation Commission and as a circuit judge.

Chief Justice John Dan Kemp has said he intends to retire at the end of his term, noting that because he has passed age 70 he would have to relinquish his retirement benefits under state law if he were reelected. Justice Karen Baker is also running for the chief justice position.

Secretary of State John Thurston, who has announced a run for state treasurer next year, warned Republican colleagues against putting personal ambitions in front of the party.

"It's only been like 10 years since we've had the House and Senate and all the constitutional offices," he said. "So we have to be careful we don't burn the thing down."

After state treasurer Mark Lowery died last month, Sanders appointed former Department of Finance and Administration Secretary Larry Walther to serve as state treasurer until January 2025.

  photo  Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks Saturday at the Wyndham Riverfront hotel in North Little Rock in support of naming Joseph Wood the new chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)