The governor of Arkansas is an odd man in his own state’s primary

LITTLE SKIRT, Ark. – Based on the spate of television ads and mailings ahead of Tuesday’s Arkansas primary, it’s obvious who the state’s most influential Republicans are.

Tom Cotton is standing up for fellow Sen. John Boozman and voicing his conservative honesty as the two-term senator fends off challenges from the right. The image of Donald Trump appears in ads for Boozman and for Sarah Sanders, who served as the President’s former White House press secretary and is now running for governor. Sanders, whose endorsement is almost as coveted as Trump’s, is helping deliver Boozman’s closing argument in a TV spot.


But conspicuously missing from the ads and campaigning is the state’s highest-ranking Republican-elect, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, entering the final phase of his term with strong approval ratings and a heightened national profile. Hutchinson’s advisers say that’s because he’s focused on helping more Republicans nationally as he looks ahead — which could include a White House bid.

But it’s also a sign of how far the party that Hutchinson spent decades building here has moved further to the right, and how much national politics has become nationalized. In a competitive primary where Republicans try to outdo each other, even a longtime GOP figure in the state like Hutchinson doesn’t make as much of a splash, especially if he’s not known for being very hard-edged.


“There are other, flashier wagons that they can hitch their horses to,” said Janine Parry, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas.

And Hutchinson — who tweets Bible verses every Sunday morning and is often flanked by charts and graphs at press conferences — is far from flashy.

Widely favored for the Republican nomination, Sanders was supported by Hutchinson but rarely mentions the governor. When asked how she would govern differently than Hutchinson, Sanders says she would rather focus on her own approach.

“I’m myself. I don’t like to compare myself to anyone,” said Sanders, whose father served as governor for 10 years. “I keep getting asked, ‘Are you going to be more like your father?’ or “Will you be like Trump?” I’ll be Sarah Sanders.”


Sanders has avoided publicly criticizing Hutchinson, even when her former boss called the outgoing governor “RINO” — Republican in name only — for his decision to veto an anti-transgender law. Sanders said she signed the measure banning gender confirmation treatments for transgender youth. She has a pledge to phase out the state income tax after a series of cuts Hutchinson has campaigned for over the years. When Hutchinson endorsed Sanders in November, she praised his work on tax cuts.

Sanders faces a lengthy challenge in the primary from Doc Washburn, a former talk radio host and podcaster, who points to Hutchinson’s support as a disqualifying factor for Sanders. Five Democrats are seeking the party’s nomination for office, with nuclear engineer and ordained minister Chris Jones leading the way.


Sanders has stepped in to help the soft-spoken Boozman adopt a more aggressive tone befitting the scorched-earth political climate.

“I know John Boozman as a champion of President Trump’s America First agenda,” Sanders said in a TV commercial for the senator.

A Super PAC supporting a challenger, former NFL player Jake Bequette, has run ads questioning Boozman’s conservative credentials. Other challengers to Boozman include conservative activist Jan Morgan and pastor Heath Loftis. Three Democrats — Natalie James, Jack Foster and Dan Whitfield — are seeking the party’s nomination for Boozman’s seat.


Hutchinson, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has endorsed several Arkansas legislative candidates and funded through his political action committee, but advisers say his focus was more on the national stage. Hutchinson has donated to candidates elsewhere.

“It’s just a small shift in focus to the political frontline when he looks ahead and says, ‘How do I help candidates across the country?'” said Jon Gilmore, Hutchinson’s chief political strategist.

Hutchinson has raised his profile as chairman of the National Governors Association and has become a frequent guest on Sunday talk shows, often splitting from Trump and warning Republicans to look ahead instead of fixating on the 2020 election. He said his decision on a presidential bid in 2024 will not be affected by whether Trump runs in the race.


He has also fought with his party’s right flank, fighting off Republicans who oppose rape and incest exemptions to abortion bans and those who would block companies from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations.

Hutchinson’s distancing from Trump has given him broader appeal among independents and some Democrats, which has helped keep his approval ratings high, political observers say. Sanders has arrived at similar numbers using a much more polarizing approach.

“They built their houses very differently,” said Republican strategist Robert Coon.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. The governor of Arkansas is an odd man in his own state’s primary

Joel McCord

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