What will Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ 2022 race for governor look like in the coming months now that she’s started campaigning in person? Probably a lot like it’s looked at a distance so far: more focused on national issues than state ones.
In her Freedom Tour campaign kickoff speech in Benton on Monday, Sanders repeated her argument that governors are the “last line of defense” against the federal government and the “radical Left.”
She did not mention typical state issues – education, tax policy, highways, prisons, Medicaid expansion. Likewise, she did not mention the COVID-19 pandemic, which has occupied Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s attention since March 2020.
Sanders said she has been attacked for “nationalizing the race.”
“And my answer to those people: You bet I am. … We have people in Washington in leadership, the radical Left that are not OK just changing policy,” she said. “They want to fundamentally change who we are as a country. And we cannot sit back and do nothing and allow that to happen.”
This has been a main theme since she announced her candidacy, so it may be awhile before she talks much about traditional state issues.
So far, she has declined to take questions from reporters – and did again Monday – and she declined to participate in an education town hall hosted by KATV Channel 7 and Talk Business & Politics. The hosts gave Sanders’ opponent, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a full hour to talk about schools and gave almost an hour and a half to the three participating Democratic candidates.
Sanders is right that politics has indeed become more nationalized. We’re in a time of social upheaval and political division and dysfunction. It’s impossible to ignore these changes, but a governor might influence them, or at least try to.
Sanders also knows that voters, particularly in a Republican primary, often get more fired up about national, values-type issues than state ones. Moreover, she has more experience and obviously more passion talking about these types of issues than about how she would manage the nuts and bolts of state government.
The other theme of Sanders’ campaign is another national one: A reminder to voters that she was at President Trump’s side as his press secretary for two-and-a-half years. She offered several recollections of that time at her rally in Benton Monday, saying she was “very proud” of it.
Rutledge, too, has often nationalized her office, and she’s been completely supportive of Trump. She’s participated in numerous state-led lawsuits by Republican attorneys general that could have influenced national policies. Those included an unsuccessful Texas-led one asking the Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, upon which Hutchinson relies to insure 300,000 Arkansans. She also participated in another Texas-led lawsuit to nullify the votes of four states that voted for President Biden. It also was unsuccessful.
But Rutledge cannot compete with Sanders in those two areas – nationalizing elections and supporting Trump. Unlike Sanders, she did not become famous doing so, and she does not have Trump’s endorsement and enthusiastic support.
Rutledge has been more engaged than Sanders about those traditional state issues, such as education and tax policy. She’s already said she will lead an effort to end the state income tax via a constitutional amendment. But those issues so far are not central to the current campaign.
At some point, maybe they will be. At some point Sanders should talk about how she’ll raise student test scores and cut taxes while still balancing the budget. Perhaps she’ll participate in the traditional Arkansas PBS debates next spring, assuming Rutledge stays in the race.
In the meantime, she’ll keep nationalizing the governor’s race because those national issues are the ones she cares most about, because it’s good politics, and because she’s winning while doing it.
Until one of those three changes, there won’t be much reason for her to do anything differently.