By ANDREW DeMILLO – Associated Press
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Based on the barrage of TV ads and direct mail leading up to Tuesday’s primary election in Arkansas, it’s clear who the most influential Republicans in the state are.
by Tom Cotton make the case for comrade Senator John Boozman, speaking of his conservative good faith as the two-term senator fends off challenges from the right. The image of Donald Trump appears in ads for Boozman and for Sarah Sanderwho served as the former president’s White House press secretary and is now candidate for governor. Sanders, whose endorsement is almost as sought after as Trump’s, helps make Boozman’s closing argument in a TV ad.
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But conspicuously absent from the ads and the campaign trail is the state’s top elected Republican, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who enters the home stretch of his term with strong approval ratings and a heightened national profile. Hutchinson advisers say it’s because he’s focused on helping more Republicans nationwide as he looks to the future – which could include an offer from the White House.
But it’s also a sign of how far the party Hutchinson spent decades building here has shifted further to the right, and how much state politics has become nationalized. In competitive primaries where Republicans try to outdo each other, even a longtime in-state GOP figure like Hutchinson doesn’t provide as much of a bump, especially if he’s not known to be very tough.
“There are other flashier wagons they can hitch their horses to,” said Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas.
And Hutchinson – who tweets Bible verses every Sunday morning and is often accompanied by charts and graphs at press conferences – is anything but flashy.
Sanders, who is heavily favored to win the Republican nomination, was approved by Hutchinson but rarely mentions the governor. When asked how she would govern differently from Hutchinson, Sanders says she prefers to focus on her own approach.
“I really am my own person. I don’t like to compare myself to anyone,” said Sanders, whose father served as governor for 10 years. “I get asked all the time, ‘will you be more like your dad?’ or ‘will you be like Trump?’ I will be Sarah Sanders.”
Sanders avoided publicly criticizing Hutchinson, even when his former boss called the incumbent governor a ‘RINO’ – Republican in name only – for his decision veto an anti-transgender law. Sanders said she would have signed the measure, which bans gender-confirmation treatments for transgender youth. She is running on a promise to phase out the state’s personal income tax after a series of cuts Hutchinson has defended over the years. When Hutchinson endorsed Sanders in November, she praised his work on lowering taxes.
Sanders faces a long-running 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, along with a nuclear engineer and an ordained minister Chris Jones the favourite.
Sanders stepped in to help soft-spoken Boozman strike 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 advertising for the senator.
A super PAC supporting a challenger, former NFL player Jacques Bequette, ran ads questioning Boozman’s conservative credentials. Boozman’s other challengers include a conservative activist John 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 backed several Arkansas legislative candidates and donated money through his political action committee, but advisers say he is is more focused on the national scene. Hutchinson has donated to candidates elsewhere.
“It’s just a small shift in focus on the political front as he looks to the future and says, ‘How can I help candidates across the country? ‘” said Jon Gilmore, chief political strategist for Hutchinson.
Hutchinson rose to prominence as chairman of the National Governors Association and became a frequent guest on Sunday talk shows, often break up with trump and warn Republicans to look ahead rather than focusing on the 2020 election. He said his decision on a 2024 presidential bid would not be affected by whether or not Trump joined the race.
He also fought with the right flank of his party, pushing back the Republicans oppose the rape and incest exceptions in the prohibition of abortion and against those who would bar businesses to require COVID-19 vaccinations.
Hutchinson’s distance from Trump has given him broader appeal among independents and some Democrats, which has helped keep his approval rating high, according to political observers. Sanders arrived at similar numbers with a much more polarizing approach.
“They built their homes very differently,” said Republican strategist Robert Coon.
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