It seems far too early to be talking about a governor’s election that won’t occur for another 15 months. But this may be our last chance.
The Republican primary already had two political heavyweights vying for the title after Lt. Governor Tim Griffin and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge entered the race. According to their last campaign finance reports, Griffin had already raised $1.8 million, while Rutledge had raised $1 million with the May 2022 primary still a year-and-a-half away.
But then Muhammad Ali stepped into the ring last month in the form of Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Sanders raised $1 million within four days of her announcement and was endorsed by former President Donald Trump, which means a lot in Arkansas. That kind of money not only will enrich her campaign bank account but also will hinder her opponents’ future fundraising efforts.
Campaign donors are making an investment, and investors want to see a return. They’ll bet on the horse that’s favored to win the race.
We’ve been hearing for a while about these private polls that supposedly show Sanders with a huge lead. In a new one, the lead seems insurmountable.
In response to all that, one of the heavyweights decided to pick another fight. On Monday, Griffin announced he is running for attorney general instead.
Rutledge says she’s still in the race, but she would have an especially difficult time facing Sanders. They run in the same lane, but Sanders has a huge head start. They are both vying to be the state’s first female governor, but Sanders is a national figure who was a fixture on Fox News and CNN, while Rutledge airs “The Rutledge Report” on local radio stations.
They both have been outspoken supporters of President Trump, but only Sanders can show footage of herself by his side and in the White House press room. And of course, Sanders is the daughter of former Gov. Mike Huckabee. Having such a legacy helps, which is why when you mention “Sen. Pryor” in Arkansas, the next question asked is “David or Mark?”
Griffin and Rutledge have spent years putting themselves in a position to run for governor, but they did so as conventional politicians, which is not meant as an insult. They got elected to their offices and then performed their duties while also trying to raise their own political profiles. But conventional politicians have a tough time beating political celebrities, as in President Donald Trump and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Now Rutledge has several choices in front of her.
One is to stay in the race. She didn’t get where she is by being afraid to take risks. Perhaps Sanders will change her mind or commit a fatal political error – which I don’t know what that would be these days, but surely it’s still possible.
She also could run for another office – perhaps lieutenant governor, Griffin’s current job. (They are both term-limited.) If she did, she could position herself as Sanders’ right-hand woman. Supposedly they are friends. Then she could run for governor in eight years.
Like Sanders in the governor’s race, Rutledge would be a bigger political celebrity than the candidates who have shown an interest in that office. It’s unclear if she could keep the money she has already raised. Griffin intends to offer his donors a refund. Senate Bill 82 by Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, would require candidates to refund donations when they switch races, but it hasn’t made its way through the Legislature yet.
Or, Rutledge could just do something else. She’s an accomplished attorney with good connections who can find work paying more than being governor or lieutenant governor does.
It’s possible that Sanders’ celebrity, campaign bank account, family legacy and Trump connection will allow her to stroll into the Governor’s Mansion where she grew up. The Democrats certainly don’t have anyone who could beat her.
Or we could still have a contested race in May 2022 between Sanders and Rutledge and maybe someone else like state Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette.
We’ll see. A race can become quite interesting in 15 months’ time – or become not very interesting at all.