The move positions Arkansas as a test of how committed Trump, who publicly encouraged Sanders to run for governor, will be in his post-presidency in clashes over the direction of the Republican Party as aides, allies and family members attempt to carry on his legacy.
Through his Save America PAC, Trump announced his former press secretary’s approval on Monday night.
“Sarah Huckabee Sanders is a warrior who will always fight for the people of Arkansas and do the right thing, not what is politically correct. Sarah is strong in bounds, hard at crime, and fully supports the Second Amendment and our great law enforcement officers quite, “said Trump in the statement.
“She loves our military and our veterans – and her home state of Arkansas. Sarah will be a great governor, and she has my full and complete endorsement!”
Her entry into the race comes amid excitement over possible Senate runs by Trump family members, including daughter Ivanka Trump against incumbent Republican Senator Marco Rubio in Florida and daughter-in-law Lara Trump for the seat of retired North Carolina Senator Richard Burr.
The Arkansas governor race will also show how attractive Republican primary voters find personal connections with Trump and his presidency – especially in an area with other well-known Conservative candidates who have also joined the former president.
Two nationwide officials are already taking part in the competition, Trump in Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, a former congressman who was considered at one point but was turned over for the Secretary of the Army Post in Trump’s administration, and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Conservative who stood up for Trump in court battles, including a lawsuit against the 2020 election results.
Sanders also has deep personal ties with Arkansas: Her father, Mike Huckabee, served as governor for more than a decade before launching his failed presidential offers for 2008 and 2016.
Griffin greeted Sanders for the race by taking a seat to her right, pointing out that her announcement video called for something Arkansas had already done to defuse protected cities and that her proposal to lower the state’s income tax came just before his prompt to eliminate this tax ends altogether.
“I think there is a lot to talk about, besides personalities, and I’ll talk about it. I’ll talk a lot about ideas and substance. And at the end of the day that makes all the difference in Arkansan’s life,” Griffin said in an interview on Monday .
Sanders, 38, is a longtime Republican who became Trump’s White House press secretary. In that role, she made a number of misleading and false statements from the podium in the conference room. She left the White House in 2019 when Trump publicly urged her to run for governor of Arkansas.
She announced her candidacy in a video posted on Twitter Monday morning. “With the radical left now in charge of Washington, your governor is your last line of defense. In fact, your governor must be on the front line,” she said.
Trump’s orbit welcomed Sanders to Monday’s race. “You will win and you will be great,” tweeted Donald Trump Jr. “I’m all about to support your campaign to become the next governor of Arkansas,” tweeted former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “Integrity and hard work. Take it from a Kansan – she’ll make Arkansans a good turn!”
Griffin, a former George W. Bush White House employee, said he would “not be surprised” if Trump camped for Sanders. But he downplayed the importance of their personal connection, saying that his own record – including the time he opposed the policies of former President Barack Obama and then Vice-President Joe Biden during Congress, as well as the implementation of Trump’s Supported politics in Arkansas – the current political moment could better coincide.
“I supported Trump and Trump’s policies; she did it. Great. She worked for him – that’s great. I worked for President Bush in the White House. I have worked in Congress against the Obama-Biden- Agenda fought. That will be especially relevant now, “Griffin said.
“For me, this is just a clear decision on who is ready to run Arkansas on day one,” he said. “And I think you can look at it 100 different ways. Either way, I’ll be ready on day one. And nobody else is.”
Neither Griffin nor Rutledge have criticized Trump or Sanders’ association with the former president. In a statement, Rutledge pointed to her support for Trump’s “de-regulation agenda at all levels” and said Sanders and her family are long-time friends. She said Arkansas needed “a leader with a proven track record against the liberal left”. The Sanders campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
The fact that three high-profile candidates sprint to the right in Arkansas Republican governor practice underscores how much the state has changed since Bill Clinton’s governor. Up until a decade ago there were two Democratic Senators in the state.
Skip Rutherford, a longtime Clinton advisor and dean of the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas, said this will lead to a “bloody” elementary school where veterans of Arkansas GOP politics compete against each other.
“This one will be primarily stand-up-and-take names,” he said. “In the past, my friends on the Republican side had the luxury of having a candidate to back them up. As I told someone the other day, welcome to growth, welcome to choose either side.”
CNN’s Dan Merica contributed to this report.