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Sarah Sanders aims to go from Trump spokeswoman to governor

Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaking to a crowd of supporters on Sept. 6 in Benton.
Michael Hibblen
Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaking to a crowd of supporters during her first rally in her bid for governor on Sept. 6, 2021 in Benton.

Sarah Sanders is poised to make the leap from Donald Trump’s spokeswoman to Arkansas governor in Tuesday’s election, hoping to claim the office her father once held and become the first woman to lead the state.

The former White House press secretary and Republican nominee is heavily favored in the race for governor in her home state, where Trump remains popular among conservatives.

Democratic nominee Chris Jones, an ordained Baptist minister and nuclear engineer, has trailed Sanders by double digits in public polls leading up to Tuesday’s election. Sanders has shattered fundraising records in the state since she launched her campaign last year. Libertarian Ricky Dale Harrington is also running.

Jones or Harrington also would make history if either wins by being the first African American Arkansas has elected to statewide or congressional office.

If she wins, Sanders will become the highest profile Trump official in elected office at a time when the president’s influence on the GOP is seen in several high-profile races around the country.

They are running to succeed Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is barred by term limits from seeking reelection. Hutchinson, who has endorsed Sanders, is considering running for president and has often split with Trump.

Sanders has proudly nationalized her bid, with ads promising to use the state’s top office to fight President Joe Biden and the “radical left.” She’s largely avoided interviews with local reporters during her campaign, but has made frequent appearances on Fox News.

She’s promised to continue cutting the state’s income tax, after a series of reductions enacted by Hutchinson and Republican lawmakers in recent years. But she hasn’t detailed a timeline for doing so or how she’d make up for the loss in revenue.

Sanders entered the race as the most nationally recognized candidate for governor the state has ever had, after years of defending Trump’s policies on television and being lampooned by Saturday Night Live.

Trump publicly encouraged Sanders to run for governor when she left the White House in 2019 to return to her home state.

During Sanders’ nearly two-year tenure at the White House, she scaled back daily televised briefings after repeatedly sparring with reporters who aggressively questioned her. She faced questions about her credibility, particularly after special counsel Robert Mueller’s report revealed that Sanders admitted making an unfounded claim to reporters about FBI agents’ reaction to director James Comey’s firing. But she also earned reporters’ respect working behind the scenes to develop relationships with the media.

Sanders was a known figure in Arkansas long before Trump. She appeared in ads for her father, former Gov. Mike Huckabee — a two-time presidential contender and frequent political commentator — and worked on his campaigns. She managed Sen. John Boozman’s 2010 election and worked as an adviser to Sen. Tom Cotton’s in 2014.

Sanders briefly left the campaign trail in September after undergoing surgery for thyroid cancer. Her doctor said Sanders was cancer free after the surgery.

Jones has tried to contrast himself with Sanders, portraying himself as a more unifying figure than the former Trump official. He’s run on promises to expand preschool access and broadband in the state.

Jones entered the race with an online video that quickly went viral and has won the backing of national figures including California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Other former Trump officials who have been elected to office include Ronny Jackson, Trump’s former doctor in the White House, who was elected to a Texas congressional seat in 2020. Karoline Leavitt, a former White House staffer under Trump, is running for a congressional seat in New Hampshire.

Andrew DeMillo is the Capitol Correspondent for the Little Rock bureau of The Associated Press.