The move positions Arkansas as a test of how engaged 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 seek to carry on his legacy.
Through his Save America PAC, Trump announced his endorsement of his former press secretary Monday night.
“Sarah Huckabee Sanders is a warrior who will always fight for the people of Arkansas and do what is right, not what is politically correct. Sarah is strong on Borders, tough on Crime, and fully supports the Second Amendment and our great law enforcement officers,” Trump said in the statement.
“She loves our Military and Veterans — and her home state of Arkansas. Sarah will be a GREAT Governor, and she has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”
The Arkansas race for governor will also gauge how appealing Republican primary voters find personal connections to Trump and his presidency — especially in a field with other well-known conservative contenders who have also aligned themselves with the former president.
The contest already features two statewide officials who have strongly backed Trump in Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, a former congressman who at one point was considered but passed over for the secretary of the Army post in Trump’s administration, and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a conservative who sided with Trump in court battles, including a lawsuit challenging the 2020 election results.
Sanders, too, has deep personal ties in Arkansas: Her father Mike Huckabee spent more than a decade as governor before launching his failed 2008 and 2016 presidential bids.
Griffin welcomed Sanders to the race by finding room to her right, pointing out that her announcement video called for something Arkansas had already done in defunding sanctuary cities, and noting that her proposal to lower the state’s income tax stops short of his call to eliminate it altogether.
“I think there’s a lot to talk about other than personalities, and I’m going to talk about it. I’m going to talk a whole lot about ideas and substance. And at the end of the day, that’s what makes the difference in Arkansans’ lives,” Griffin said in an interview Monday.
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.
Griffin, a former George W. Bush White House staffer, said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Trump campaigns for Sanders. But he downplayed the importance of their personal connection, saying his own record — including time opposing former President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden’s policies while in Congress, as well as implementing Trump-backed policies in Arkansas — could better meet the current political moment.
“I supported Trump and Trump’s policies; she did too. Great. She worked for him — that’s great. I worked for President Bush at the White House. I have a history of fighting the Obama-Biden agenda when I was in Congress, so that will be particularly relevant now,” Griffin said.
“For me, this is just about a clear choice of who’s ready on day one to lead Arkansas,” he said. “And I think you can look at it 100 different ways. In every instance, I’m ready on day one. And no one else is.”
Neither Griffin nor Rutledge has criticized Trump, or Sanders’ association with the former president. In a statement, Rutledge touted her support for Trump’s “de-regulatory agenda at every level” and said Sanders and her family are long-time friends. She said Arkansas needs “a leader with a proven record of accomplishments against the liberal left.” Sanders’ campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
That the Arkansas Republican gubernatorial primary features three high-profile candidates sprinting to the right underscores how much the state has shifted since Bill Clinton was governor; until a decade ago, the state featured two Democratic senators.
Skip Rutherford, a longtime Clinton aide and the dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, said it’ll lead to a “bloody” primary pitting longtime veterans of Arkansas GOP politics against each other.
“This one is going to be stand-up-and-take-names primary,” he said. “In the past, my friends on the Republican side have had the luxury of having one candidate to support. As I told someone the other day, welcome to growth, welcome to having to pick sides.”
CNN’s Dan Merica contributed to this report.