Arkansas governor is odd man out in his own state's primary

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Former White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders speaks at a campaign stop at a Dairy Queen in Little Rock, Ark., Monday, May 2, 2022. Sanders is seeking the Republican nomination for governor in the Arkansas primary. (AP Photo/Andrew DeMillo)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Based on the barrage of television ads and mailers leading up to Tuesday's primary election in Arkansas, it's obvious who the most influential Republicans in the state are.

Tom Cotton's making the case for fellow Sen. John Boozman, talking up his conservative bona fides while 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 closing argument for Boozman in a TV ad.

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But conspicuously missing 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 raised national profile. Hutchinson's advisers say that's because he's concentrating on helping more Republicans nationally as he looks to the future — which might include a White House bid.

But it's also a sign of just how much the party that Hutchinson spent decades building here has shifted farther to the right and how much the state's politics have become nationalized. In competitive primaries where Republicans are trying to out-Trump each other, even a longtime GOP figure in the state like Hutchinson doesn't provide as much of a bump, especially if he's not known for being very hard-edged.

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

And Hutchinson — who tweets Bible verses every Sunday morning and is often flanked by charts and graphs at news conferences — is anything but flashy.

Sanders, who's widely favored to win the Republican nomination, has been endorsed by Hutchinson but rarely mentions the governor. When asked how she'd govern differently from Hutchinson, Sanders says she'd rather focus on her own approach.

“I'm very much my own person. I don't like to compare myself to anybody," Sanders, whose dad served as governor for 10 years, said. “I constantly get 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 when her former boss labeled the outgoing governor a “RINO" — Republican in Name Only — for his decision to veto an anti-transgender law. Sanders said she would have signed the measure, which bans gender confirming treatments for transgender youth. She's running on a promise to phase out the state's personal income tax following a series of cuts Hutchinson has championed over the years. When Hutchinson endorsed Sanders in November, she praised his work on cutting taxes.

Sanders faces a long-shot challenge in the primary from Doc Washburn, a former talk 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 office, with nuclear engineer and ordained minister Chris Jones the frontrunner.

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 TV ad for the senator.

A super PAC supporting one 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 story, has endorsed several legislative candidates in Arkansas and given 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 he looks to the future and says, ‘how do I help candidates across the country?’” Jon Gilmore, chief political strategist for Hutchinson, said.

Hutchinson has raised his profile as chairman of the National Governors Association and has become a frequent guest on Sunday talk shows, often splitting with Trump and warning Republicans to look ahead rather than fixating on the 2020 election. He’s said his decision on a 2024 presidential bid won’t be affected by whether Trump joins the race.

What's important, he says, is that Republican candidates “run on the future and problem-solving,” Hutchinson said Sunday on CNN's “State of the Union.” Asked about Trump-backed 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 does” win, but also notes, “let's see how the campaign progresses."

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

Hutchinson has also battled with the right flank of his party, pushing back against Republicans opposing rape and incest exceptions in abortion bans and against those who would bar businesses from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations.

Hutchinson's distancing from Trump has given him a broader appeal among independents and some Democrats that's helped keep his approval numbers strong, political observers say. Sanders has arrived at similar numbers with a much more polarizing approach.

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

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