When Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced her candidacy for governor of Arkansas back in January, it was with a blare of MAGA combativeness. Presumably this tone was intended to capitalize on her recent White House gig and her quick endorsement by Donald Trump. But a few months later, her pledges to “defend your right to be free of socialism and tyranny” and her attacks on “the radical left” and “cancel culture” started to sound weird, as I noted in March:
This is Arkansas we are talking about, where it’s hard to imagine socialism is in the works, or lying liberal media dominating news and views, or woke cancel-culture commissars stalking the earth searching for good decent Christians to “silence.”
Besides, kulturkampf isn’t normally in the job description of governors, who have quotidian responsibilities for education and economic development and health care and criminal justice, as Sanders would surely know as the daughter of longtime Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
Now, Sanders’s turgid campaign message has caught the attention of Chris Deaton, writing at the Bulwark. As he points out, Sanders isn’t exactly a desperate office-seeker grimly staring at the polls and slavishly doing whatever she has to do to win:
Sarah Huckabee Sanders is near-certain to win the Arkansas gubernatorial election in 2022.
So Huckabee Sanders has the political freedom to go in any direction that she chooses …
She could run on her family name, or policy positions in-line with a majority of Arkansas voters, or even just by framing her association with Trump as a positive credential: as relevant high-level experience, or as playing for the team that most voters in her state root for.
Yet even with that buffet of options available, Sarah Huckabee Sanders still chose grievance. She still chose fear-mongering. She still chose to stoke outgroup hatred.
Deaton may have exaggerated Sanders’s all-powerful positioning a bit, but not that much. She’s already chased state lieutenant governor Tim Griffin out of the GOP primary, and is running about four-to-one ahead of state attorney general Leslie Rutledge in fundraising. Yes, there are a couple of credible Democrats in the race (notably economic development expert Chris Jones, who is also a physicist and an ordained minister), but this is Arkansas, which Sanders’s former boss won by 27 points last year. Republicans have three-to-one margins in both chambers of the state legislature, hold every partisan statewide elected office, and won the last two gubernatorial elections by landslides.
So Sanders has every reason to run a sunny, high-road campaign instead of portraying herself as “the last line of defense” against the socialist barbarian hordes besieging her Elysian state. I have been reliably assured that out of the public eye Sanders is a warm, genial human being, so I don’t think she’s waging a savage campaign out of personal hatefulness.
That leaves two possibilities. Perhaps Sanders is looking beyond 2022 and sees herself on a national ticket soon, wherein not only MAGA credentials but an exhibited ability to mix it up with the opposition is at a premium. It does make some sense. Even today’s Republicans know they cannot keep running two white men at the top of their ticket forever. It’s too early for Sanders to run for the top spot, but what about Trump-Sanders ’24? She’s shown her loyalty to the former president repeatedly; no way she’d stab him in the back like Mike Pence did on January 6. If the former president doesn’t run again, maybe DeSantis-Sanders would have a nice Sun Belt ring to it. A Hawley-Sanders ticket would have some heartland resonance. Even Cruz-Sanders or Rubio-Sanders might work. No, she’s not going to be the running mate of Nikki Haley or Kristi Noem or her fellow Arkansan Tom Cotton, but they’re all long shots anyway.
And if 2024 is too soon, hey, she’s only 38, so revving her engine in Little Rock for a while even as she builds a national profile is always possible.
Unfortunately, if I’m wrong about that, the other possibility is darker, as Deaton observes: Maybe paranoid grievance-tending is the wave of the future for the Republican Party, and Sanders is already riding it.
It’s not that big a stretch to envision MAGA politics so engulfing conservative politics that every Republican candidate from president to dog-catcher will soon be grinding away like cicadas about “cancel culture” and “wokeness” and stolen elections and critical race theory and a thousand twisted preoccupations that have nothing to do with the offices being sought. The GOP, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, are well over halfway there.