Arkansas governor is a strange man in his own state primary

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Based on the spate of TV ads and billboards leading up to Tuesday’s primary election in Arkansas, it’s obvious who the most influential Republicans in the state are.

Tom Cotton is defending fellow Senator John Boozman, speaking of his conservative good faith as the two-term senator fends off challenges from the right. Donald Trump’s image appears in ads for Boozman and for Sarah Sanders, who served as the former president’s White House press secretary and is now running for governor. Sanders, whose endorsement is almost as sought after as Trump’s, is helping make the final case for Boozman in a television ad.

But conspicuously absent from the ads and the campaign trail is the state’s top elected Republican, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is entering the final stretch of his term with strong approval ratings and a high national profile. Hutchinson’s aides say that’s because he is focusing on helping more Republicans nationally as he looks to the future, which could include a White House run.

But it’s also a sign of how far the party Hutchinson spent decades building here has moved farther to the right and how much state politics has been nationalized. In competitive primaries where Republicans are trying to one-up each other, even a longtime Republican figure in the state like Hutchinson doesn’t provide as much momentum, especially if he isn’t known for being very tough.

“There are other flashier wagons for them to hitch their horses,” 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 surrounded by charts and graphs at news conferences, is anything but flashy.

Sanders, who is widely favored to win the Republican nomination, has been endorsed by Hutchinson but rarely mentions the governor. When asked how he would govern differently from Hutchinson, Sanders says he would rather focus on his own approach.

“I am very much my own person. I don’t like to compare myself to anyone,” said Sanders, whose father was governor for 10 years. “I’m constantly being asked, ‘Will you be more like your dad?’ or ‘will you be like Trump?’ I’m going to be Sarah Sanders.”

Sanders has avoided publicly criticizing Hutchinson, even as his former boss labeled the outgoing governor “RINO” (Republican in name only) for his decision to veto an anti-transgender law. Sanders said he would have signed the measure, which bans gender-confirming treatments for transgender youth. He is running on a promise to phase out the state’s personal income tax after a series of cuts that Hutchinson has championed over the years. When Hutchinson endorsed Sanders in November, he praised his work on tax cuts.

Sanders faces a long-term challenge in the primary from Doc Washburn, a former radio host and podcaster who points to Hutchinson’s endorsement as a disqualifying factor for Sanders. Five Democrats are seeking the party’s nomination for the job, with nuclear engineer and ordained minister Chris Jones the favorite.

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

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

A super PAC supporting a challenger, former NFL player Jake Bequette, has been running ads questioning Boozman’s conservative credentials. Boozman’s other challengers 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 article, endorsed several legislative candidates in Arkansas and gave them money through his political action committee, but advisers say his focus has been more on the national stage. Hutchinson has been donating to candidates elsewhere.

“It’s just a little bit of a shift in focus on the political front as you look to the future and say, ‘how do I help candidates across the country?’” said Jon Gilmore, Hutchinson’s chief political strategist.

Hutchinson has raised his profile as president of the National Governors Association and has become a frequent guest on Sunday talk shows, often taking issue with Trump and warning Republicans to look ahead rather than obsess over politics. 2020 election. He has said his decision on a 2024 presidential bid will not be affected by whether Trump joins the race.

What’s important, he says, is that Republican candidates “run for the future and problem solving,” Hutchinson said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” When asked about Trump-endorsed candidates like Doug Mastriano, who won the Republican nomination for governor in Pennsylvania and has spread election conspiracy theories that the 2020 election was stolen, Hutchinson says “I hope he wins,” but also says, “Let’s see how.” the campaign advances”.

“If you spend your time dealing with the past and last year’s election results, you’re not going to be in a good position,” he said.

Hutchinson has also fought with the right wing of her party, pushing back against Republicans who oppose rape and incest exceptions to abortion bans and against those who would bar companies from requiring COVID-19 vaccines.

Hutchinson’s estrangement from Trump has given her broader appeal among independents and some Democrats that has helped keep her approval ratings strong, political observers say. Sanders has come up with similar numbers with a much more polarizing approach.

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

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