Nine months after announcing her candidacy for Arkansas governor through a produced video, Sarah Huckabee Sanders is now taking her campaign to the people. This Labor Day weekend she began a series of 15 appearances around the state.
On Monday evening, the former White House press secretary spoke to an enthusiastic crowd at a rally in Benton. Sanders was introduced by her father, former Gov. Mike Huckabee.
“She understands why she wants to run, what she will do when elected, and I believe with all my heart – and this is hard to say for reasons that will make perfect sense when I say it – I think she will be the best governor Arkansas ever had,” Huckabee said.
Sanders said she was proud of her father and her recent work in Washington, immediately reminding the audience why she is revered by conservatives nationwide.
“I’m the former White House press secretary for President Donald Trump,” Sanders said to perhaps the most rousing applause of the evening. “I’m proud of the fact that we had a president who did exactly what he said he was going to do. How refreshing was it to have a politician who actually delivered on the promises that he made instead of the weak and incompetent leadership that we have in Washington right now.”
Sanders said she was tired of seeing Arkansas ranking near the bottom compared to other states in many categories and suggested she has the leadership to make improvements. But Sanders did not offer specifics or address issues like the COVID-19 pandemic, education or tax policy. She also defended her focus on national issues.
“I keep hearing, ‘Oh there’s the Sarah Sanders, she’s nationalizing the race.’ And my answer to those people, you bet I am. Because if you are not, you are missing what is happening in our country,” Sanders said. “We have people in Washington, in leadership, the radical left that are not OK just changing policy. They want to fundamentally change who we are as a country and we cannot sit back and do nothing and allow that to happen.”
Sanders did not mention her Republican primary opponent, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, during the rally. Rutledge has repeatedly suggested Sanders does not have the experience needed to become governor. Rutledge’s campaign responded to the Monday event by calling the attorney general a lifelong public servant whose record on the issues is superior to Sanders’ rhetoric.
“For the last seven years, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has actually been leading the fight against the Biden and Obama administrations, not just tweeting about them,” said Rutledge campaign manager Drew Evans. “Each year, Attorney General Rutledge hosts public meetings in all 75 counties to discuss job creation, education, criminal justice, taxes, Second Amendment, pro-life issues, the economy and any other topics brought forward by Arkansans.”
He also suggested the contrast to the two candidates was highlighted last month when KATV-Talk Business & Politics forums were held for candidates for governor. Evans said while Rutledge discussed her plans to improve educational opportunities for Arkansans during the Republican event, “her opponent declined to participate and instead opted to host a $1,000 per person fundraiser just a few blocks away.”
Sanders wrapped up Monday’s rally by telling the crowd, “I’m running to be your voice. I’m running to be your fighter. I’m running to be on the front lines because I can assure you that our governors across this country are going to be our last line of defense. They’re going to have to be tough enough and smart enough to not only fight back, but lead us forward, and I know that I can be the leader that Arkansas needs.”
After the rally, Sanders spent at least a half-hour meeting and taking photos with supporters. She did not take questions from reporters. Since announcing her candidacy in January, she has also turned down repeated interview requests from Arkansas media organizations.
No official attendance number was available, but Campaign Manager Chris Caldwell said more than 1,500 barbecue sandwiches were served.
Among those who came to hear Sanders speak were Jerry and Sharon Galloway who recently moved to Bryant. She was originally from Arkansas and they moved to the state to retire. The couple said they were inspired to attend the rally because of Sanders’ experiences working for Trump
“My wife wouldn’t miss this event,” Jerry Galloway said. “We moved from Frisco, Texas here and during the last sequence she was at Ted Cruz rallies and she was a 24-hour Donald Trump junkie. And of course, every time Sarah Sanders was up at the podium at the White House she was watching because she’s an Arkansan.”
Sanders started her 15-stop “Freedom Tour” Sunday with a boat parade at Lake Ouachita’s Mountain Harbor. On Tuesday, she has campaign stops scheduled in Conway, Russellville and Fort Smith. Sanders will continue campaigning until Saturday, when she will participate in a 9/11 event in Springdale marking the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack. A complete list of events can be found here.
In the Democratic primary for governor, four people have announced their candidacies: Dr. Anthony Bland, Dr. Chris Jones, James “Rus” Russell and Supha Xayprasith-Mays. Libertarian Ricky Dale Harrington, Jr. has also announced for governor.
More candidates could enter the race for governor, as the filing period for all candidates seeking state or local offices in Arkansas is Feb.22- March 1.
Reporting by journalist Steve Brawner for KUAR news partner Talk Business & Politics contributed to this story.