Sarah Huckabee Sanders bets Trump's culture wars will help make her Arkansas' next governor

Joe Raedle/Getty ImagesPresident Donald Trump stands with Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who announced that she is stepping down as the White House press secretary, during his rally where he announced his candidacy for a second presidential term at the Amway Centre on June 18, 2019 in Orlando, Florida.
  • Sarah Huckabee Sanders is the first of Trump’s inner circle to announce a bid for elected office.
  • The controversial former press secretary has strong support in her deep-red home state of Arkansas.
  • One Democratic operative from Arkansas predicted Sanders is a sure bet to win the governorship.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, former White House press secretary for President Donald Trump, on Monday became the first of Trump’s inner circle to announce a bid for elected office.

Sanders’ Arkansas gubernatorial campaign has been in the works for months and Trump publicly urged her to run for the seat when she left the White House in June 2019. Her close alliance with the former president, who officially endorsed her bid on Monday, and her status as the daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, are a powerful combination in the deep red state.

While Sanders left behind a controversial legacy in Washington, her popularity in Arkansas is a testament to Trump’s continuing hold on the Republican base.

In a nearly 8-minute long campaign video released Monday, Sanders leaned into Trump’s culture wars and framed herself as a warrior battling “socialism and tyranny” and the destruction of America as we know it. Just weeks after the deadly pro-Trump riot at the Capitol, Sanders doubled down on the far-right’s grievance politics.

“Everything that we love about America is at stake, and with the radical left now in control of Washington, your governor is your last line of defence,” she said. “I will not retreat, I will not surrender and I will not bow down to the radical left, not now, not ever.”

The video focused on her experience as press secretary, which she called “one of the most difficult, high-pressure jobs in all of government.”

“I took on the media, the radical left and their ‘cancel culture,’ and I won,” Sanders said. “As governor, I will be your voice, and never let them silence you.”

Special Counsel Robert Mueller revealed in 2019 that Sanders lied to the press when she claimed that “countless members of the FBI” told the White House that they’d lost confidence in former FBI director James Comey. Sanders told investigators that her claim was a “slip of the tongue” and not based on any facts.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders calls on reporters during a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House March 12, 2018 in Washington, DC.Chip Somodevilla/Getty ImagesWhite House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders calls on reporters during a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House March 12, 2018 in Washington, DC.

‘The writing is on the wall’

After leaving the White House in June 2019, Sanders moved to Little Rock with her family, pushed White House talking points as a Fox News contributor, published a memoir full of praise for the president and harsh words for his critics, and travelled the country delivering paid speeches. (Sanders’ contract with Fox ended when she announced her bid).

She joins two establishment candidates in the GOP primary field — Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin. The incumbent, GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson, is term-limited. The New York Times reported Monday that private polling shows Sanders significantly ahead of both Rutledge and Griffin.

Sanders has never held elected office and lacks experience in state politics, but she has a deep network of connections and strong name recognition in Arkansas. She grew up in the governor’s mansion and worked on the campaigns of both Arkansas Republican senators, John Boozman and Tom Cotton. And Arkansas operatives say government experience simply isn’t a top priority for the state’s Republican primary voters.

But more than anything else, Sanders owes her political status in Arkansas to her time at the White House.

“Without Trump, she would not be able to be in this position, to be a force in national politics,” Michael Cook, a Democratic strategist in Arkansas, told Insider. “Without Trump, she would just be another former political staffer.”

Sanders predicted in 2019 that her own political fortune won’t be determined by Trump’s success in the 2020 election, arguing that the former president’s hold on the GOP will be strong enough to carry her no matter what.

“If he wins, there’s a solid base and people will come in and be helpful,” Sanders told The New York Times. “If he loses, people will be angry and they will want to rally around Trump people.”

In a deeply conservative state like Arkansas, Sanders’ association with Trump is paramount. Trump won the southern state by nearly 30 points in both 2016 and 2020, and Republican primary voters in the state don’t appear deterred by the former president’s incitement of the Capitol siege and his second impeachment.

“There are many places where you’d want to get as far away from Trump as you possibly could, but Arkansas is not one of those places,” Alice Stewart, a conservative CNN commentator and former aide to Huckabee and other Arkansas Republicans, told Insider. Stewart added that Huckabee name also “carries a lot of weight” among the state’s Republican voters.

Trump sarah sandersGetty

Cook argued that Sanders is “just about guaranteed a slot” in Arkansas’ GOP primary runoffs if she doesn’t win an outright majority of primary vote.

One Democratic operative from the state, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, went further.

“The writing is on the wall,” she told Insider. “[Sanders is] going to win the primary.”

The operative added that a stint as governor would be a solid stepping stone for higher office, setting Sanders up for a possible presidential bid down the line.

Sanders likely won’t be the only former member of Trump’s inner circle to run for office. The former president’s two eldest children, Don Jr. and Ivanka, are much-discussed potential candidates, along with his daughter-in-law Lara Trump.

On Monday, Trump gave Sanders his first public endorsement since leaving Washington.

“She loves our Military and Veterans — and her home state of Arkansas,” he said of his former aide. “Sarah will be a GREAT Governor, and she has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”

Sanders also won public endorsements from other key Trump-world figures, including Donald Trump Jr. and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“I’m all in to support her campaign to become next governor of Arkansas,” Pompeo tweeted on Monday. “Integrity and hard work. Take it from a Kansan — she will do Arkansans a good turn!”

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