It was not long ago that Sen. Jim Hendren, I-Gravette, was one of the top insiders in Arkansas politics. Now he’s seeking to influence state politics from the outside.
Hendren left the Republican Party after the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol and formed an organization, Common Ground Arkansas, that seeks to encourage pragmatic solutions and elect pragmatic candidates.
What Common Ground will look like is still taking shape. The organization has been raising money but isn’t divulging its donors. It has a board of directors whose members include Davy Carter, a former Republican Speaker of the House. It’s hired an executive director, Misty Orpin, skilled in both communication and data collection.
It’s also conducted a poll whose results Hendren didn’t share, but he said it did help the group refine its message and focus his efforts. He did say the poll found that Arkansans are looking for solutions-minded candidates and that President Ronald Reagan is still popular in Arkansas, which Hendren finds encouraging.
Hendren said Common Ground is not seeking to become a political party. Instead, it will support pragmatic candidates, primarily Republicans and perhaps also independents and, in the right situations, maybe some Democrats.
The group has identified races in both the House and Senate. He said the candidates it supports must be able to win, and that the focus will be on spotlighting quality leaders rather than forming a “hit list.”
He did not disagree when I suggested that his group could oppose incumbents who are more extreme ideologically than the purple districts they represent. Common Ground is also opposing a legislatively referred amendment that would make it harder for voters to pass initiated acts and constitutional amendments.
“We are going to engage where it makes sense and where we can have success,” he said. “We’re not going to engage in futile efforts, and we’re not going to engage in efforts that there is very little difference in the outcome whether you’re successful or fail. So we’re looking for races that will have the most impact and that are winnable and that we have good candidates for, and when we find that combination, we’re going to play, and we’re going to play hard.”
As the only legislator with an “I” by his name (for independent), Hendren is now operating as an outsider.
Previously, he was one of the most powerful insider legislators – at times, the most powerful one. He first was elected to the House of Representatives in 1994, back when there were few other Republicans in office. He served three terms in the House and then later was elected to the Senate in 2012. His fellow senators elected him Senate president pro tempore before the 2019 session. Part of his influence came from his being Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s nephew and close ally, back when the Legislature was still deferring to Hutchinson.
Hendren’s star in the Republican Party was already dimming before Jan. 6. A right-winger in 1994, he’d moderated his views and his approach at the same time the party was moving right. He was an insider when insiders were becoming less cool.
Meanwhile, more combative and ideological lawmakers like Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, have seen their stock and their influence rise. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated that process because many lawmakers believed Hutchinson and other government officials have gone too far in their response.
Hendren has been mentioned as a potential candidate for governor for a while – first as an underdog Republican and now as an independent. If his goal is to focus on winnable races, then he would be best served turning his attention elsewhere. He didn’t say it, but I suspect that is what he will do.
He and Common Ground Arkansas will have to target their efforts. In politics, you want to win more than you lose, which means you should pick your fights carefully. That’s especially the case when you’re an outsider who once was an insider.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist published in 16 outlets in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.