Sanders has begun headlining Republican Party dinners around Arkansas, allowing her to reconnect with the state she called home before joining the Trump White House and offer GOP insiders a preview of what she’d look like as a candidate for the job her dad, Mike Huckabee, held for more than a decade. Speaking to a ballroom packed with more than 500 people in Hot Springs last week, the former press secretary known for her televised sparring with reporters joked about being greeted by applause when she comes to the podium.
“It’s very different than what I’m used to,” she said. Sanders and her husband, a political consultant, moved to Little Rock in late July with their three children. Since leaving the White House, she’s joined Fox News as a contributor and announced that she has a book coming out next year about her time as press secretary. She’s also delivered paid speeches and is working as a consultant for several corporations. She waived her speaking fees for local GOP speeches.
Trump has encouraged her to run for governor in 2022, when Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson is barred by term limits from seeking reelection. Sanders says she’s seriously looking at running for governor and is taking steps needed in case she decides to do so, but that her GOP appearances are about helping the party next year and aren’t about 2022.
“I think there are two types of people that run for office: people that are called and people that just want to be somebody, that want a title. I feel like in some ways, I’ve already hit a pretty good political title,” Sanders told The Associated Press in an interview.
“If I do (run), it will because I feel called to do it and because I feel I can offer something to the state and I can do something to help move the state further ahead and grow it in a positive way and I fit what the state needs at that time,” she said.
Sanders’ speeches are so far drawing sold-out crowds, with more than 600 attending an event she headlined in northwest Arkansas earlier this month. At the Hot Springs event, Sanders talked about her time in the White House, while also a mother. She told a crowd that included several people in red “Make America Great Again” hats about her toddler getting ahold of her phone and sending an emoji-laden tweet from her official White House account, and choked up when she talked about visiting troops overseas with the president on Christmas last year.
“Probably the biggest thing she has is 100 percent name ID and that’s so difficult to obtain,” said Sen. John Boozman, whose 2010 campaign Sanders managed. “I think almost every Arkansan knows who Sarah Huckabee Sanders is.”
Sanders is looking at a race that was already drawing some of the state’s top GOP figures. Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin in August said he’s running and has appeared in TV ads paid for by a nonprofit promoting lower taxes and STEM education. Another potential candidate, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, is frequently on TV in public service announcements on vaping and other issues. Another potential candidate is state Senate President Jim Hendren, who is Hutchinson’s nephew. No Democrats have announced or said they’re taking a look at the race.
Sanders remains a blank slate on many state issues that would likely come up in a heated primary. They include the state’s Medicaid expansion, which has sharply divided Republicans since it was approved six years ago. Sanders steered clear of state policy in her Hot Springs speech and said she wants to avoid distracting from Hutchinson’s agenda.
“It’s time to let the governor do his job and I don’t think it’s helpful for me to try to play a game from the side. That doesn’t help him. That doesn’t help the state,” she said. Such reticence may not be enough for some Republicans if Sanders moves closer toward a gubernatorial bid.
“If she wants the role of governor, she needs to start speaking on the issues that confront our state and let us see what it is she would do and why she should be the candidate we would support,” Republican state Rep. Les Warren said.
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