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ON THE TRAIL: Sarah Huckabee Sanders brings anti-‘radical left’ message, celebrity

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ON THE TRAIL: Sarah Huckabee Sanders brings anti-‘radical left’ message, celebrity

Sep 12, 2022 | 8:00 am ET
By Hunter Field
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ON THE TRAIL: Sarah Huckabee Sanders brings anti-‘radical left’ message, celebrity
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Sarah Huckabee Sanders discusses her intent to focus on childhood literacy if elected governor of Arkansas. Sanders met supporters during a campaign stop in Morrilton on Sept. 7. (Hunter Field/Arkansas Advocate)

Sarah Huckabee Sanders wanted the crowd in Morrilton last week to know she’s a fighter. 

She fought the media and “the radical left” while in Washington D.C., she said, and if elected Arkansas’ first female governor, she pledged to do the same against the “crazy bad ideas” coming out of the nation’s capital.

“I want to make sure the Arkansas I grew up in, the Arkansas that I love, the Arkansas that most of you grew up in and that you love as well, is the same one” that is passed down to the next generation, Sanders said during her speech.

Sanders’ Republican gubernatorial campaign is different from those before her, from record-breaking fundraising to the rallies like Wednesday’s at Point Remove Brewing Co. in Conway County.

Several rally-goers interviewed at Wednesday’s campaign event said it was their first political rally. Many said they came to know Sanders by watching her on television as former President Donald Trump’s press secretary.

One of the biggest things that we’re hearing, again, is that pushback against Washington. Preserving our values, preserving what matters to people here in Arkansas.

– Sarah Huckabee Sanders on the campaign trail.

That celebrity appeal was evident by the long line of people who waited to hug Sanders, take a photo or get her autograph after the rally. 

Mel Askins, a Morrilton resident who described himself as “a little bit right of Rush Limbaugh,” waited in line for a half-hour for Sanders to sign his copy of her book. 

Jennie Groat, who recently moved to Greenbrier from Washington state, said Sanders represents the “freedom” she and her family moved to Arkansas for. 

“Seeing her on TV, I felt like I knew her,” Groat said. “She seems just to be an all-American woman. She’s a beautiful person.”

All the talk about Washington D.C., even in a governor’s race, reflects what she hears from Republican voters, Sanders said in a brief interview after the event. 

“One of the biggest things that we’re hearing, again, is that pushback against Washington,” Sanders said. “Preserving our values, preserving what matters to people here in Arkansas.”

Education

As for state issues, Sanders hinted at what some of her priorities would be, but she and her opponents, at least to this point in the race, have yet to offer the type of specific policy proposals rolled out by past candidates for governor.

The first local issue Sanders brought up on Wednesday — similar to other public appearances — was education. Sanders, who worked in former President George W. Bush’s Department of Education, told the crowd she wants Arkansas to improve its standing in national rankings.

Kids, she said, should be “educated, not indoctrinated” and prepared for the workforce, not “a lifetime of government dependency.” 

Sanders, the daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, got loud applause for a line about empowering parents to make decisions for their children instead of government bureaucrats.

Asked afterwards for more specifics on her plans to improve education, Sanders highlighted literacy, pointing to “unacceptable” statistics that show 31% of Arkansas third-graders reading at grade level.

“So we have to have an intense focus on bringing our literacy rates up because that is going to make the difference for a lot of kids for whether they have a lifetime in poverty or whether they have a pathway to success,” she said.

Educators have focused on third-grade reading benchmarks because it’s considered the time when students transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Those behind after third grade struggle to catch up, research indicates. 

In Arkansas, the Department of Education and a variety of nonprofit groups have placed a heavy emphasis on early reading levels for at least the last decade.

And in 2017, Gov. Asa Hutchinson started the R.I.S.E. (Reading Initiative for Student Excellence) initiative after years of low reading scores. The program has resulted in special training for tens of thousands of educators. 

An Education Department spokesman also noted that recent assessments, including ACT Aspire scores, have shown positive trends towards rebounding from the pandemic.

Campaign focus

On Wednesday, Sanders also said she hoped to “reward hard work” by phasing out Arkansas’ state income tax. 

Her administration, she said, would focus on workforce and economic development as well as building safe communities.

After Askins got Sanders’ autograph, he reflected on what he hopes her nomination means. 

“She has such an opportunity,” he said. “So many young girls don’t think they can go into politics. I hope she inspires other young ladies to get into leadership.”

By all measures, Sanders is the heavy favorite in the race, which includes Democrat Chris Jones and Libertarian Ricky Dale Harrington Jr., but she invoked a quote from Arkansas’ former U.S. Sen. and Governor David Pryor, a Democrat who said there are only two ways to run a campaign: scared or unopposed.

“We’re probably 20 points up but running like we’re 20 points behind…” she said. 

“So we’re taking nothing for granted, going out and meeting people in every community across Arkansas and continuing to spread our message, whether it’s in-person on TV or anyway we can.”

This is the first in a series of stories about candidates on the campaign trail in Arkansas.