If you need evidence of former President Donald Trump’s stranglehold on the Republican Party, you need look no further than what is going on in Arkansas at the moment.
Earlier this week, state Attorney General Leslie Rutledge ended her campaign for the GOP nomination – and started her campaign for lieutenant governor. “At this crossroads in our country’s history, now is a time for Christian conservative leaders to unite and fight together against those who wish to destroy the America we know and love,” she said.
What’s the difference between the governor’s race and the lieutenant governor’s race, you ask? Sarah Sanders is in one – and it’s virtually impossible to beat her in a Republican primary. Because not only did she work in the Trump White House, but she has the endorsement of the former President, who called her a “warrior who will always fight for the people of Arkansas and do what is right, not what is politically correct.”
And so, despite the fact that Rutledge entered the race six months before Sanders and had been elected and reelected as the state’s top cop, there was simply no way for her to keep up with her.
One measure? Fundraising. Through mid-October, Sanders – aided by the Trump small-dollar donor base across the country – raised $11 million for her gubernatorial campaign. Rutledge had raised a total of $1.6 million at that same time, despite having been in the race significantly longer than Sanders.
In bowing to political reality, Rutledge follows in the footsteps of current state Lieutenant Gov. Tim Griffin, who exited the governor’s race roughly a month after Sanders got in – shifting his attention to a run for Arkansas attorney general. Griffin initially had insisted he was in the race to stay, telling CNN that “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.” But, just two weeks after he said that, he was out – driven to run for something else by the combined might of Sanders and Trump.
The departure of Rutledge now leaves Sanders with a clear shot at the Republican nomination. And, in a state where Donald Trump won by 27 points in 2020, she will start as a heavy favorite against whoever emerges from the Democratic primary.
What’s remarkable is the rapidity of Sanders’ rise to dominance in the state. As recently as May, the New York Times was painting the race as “test case for a Post-Trump Republican Party,” writing:
“Having undergone a lightning-quick transformation in the last decade from Democratic dominance to Republican rule, how closely the state clings to former President Donald J. Trump and his style of politics will offer insights about the party he still dominates.”
The insight we can now glean with more than five months of hindsight is that in Arkansas, at least, there is simply no room for a candidate offering any sort of alternative to Trumpism within the GOP. Both Griffin and Rutledge were down-the-line conservatives with track records of winning statewide elections.
But, none of that mattered in the face of Sanders’ Trump-driven fame and his early endorsement of her candidacy.
Obviously Arkansas is a single state – and Sanders is a unique candidate in that she was one of THE faces of the Trump administration. But, her ability to clear the field of two other decidedly credible candidates in (relatively) short order still should be understood as a testament to the continued strength of Trump’s brand within the GOP base.