Sarah Huckabee Sanders is near-certain to win the Arkansas gubernatorial election in 2022.
She could make her campaign about virtually anything. She could say that her first priority as governor will be to lure the Houston Astros to Little Rock. Or to ban the use of Brazilian sugar in sweet tea. None of it would matter. It wouldn’t matter because she would say those things in her ads against a background image of Donald Trump in a flight jacket, a picture that’s worth a thousand campaign pledges.
So Huckabee Sanders has the political freedom to go in any direction that she chooses.
Hold that thought for a moment—we’ll come back to her.
Let’s first shift our attention to one of her potential Democratic opponents, Chris Jones. Jones was executive director of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, a nonprofit business incubator that helps retain and grow the state’s labor supply of tradesmen: carpenters, electricians, welders, and similar vocations.
He himself earned a PhD in urban planning from MIT. Before that: dual master’s degrees from MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and the school’s Technology and Policy Program. Before that: He studied math and physics and was student body president of his undergraduate alma mater, Morehouse College.
Jones, 44, has the resumé of the vaunted “political outsider” that voters in the other party say they love nowadays. He works in job creation, with a focus on entrepreneurship and blue-collar workers. He earned his academic credentials outside the Ivy League.
And he’s an ordained minister, to boot.
Jones announced his candidacy recently. In his introductory video he shows a stole on which is written several years, dating between 1819 and 2022. His message from the perspective of a trained physicist is that time is relative, and “with the right amount of energy, you can bend it and be anywhere.”
So in the video he folds the stole to make the inscriptions of “1819” and “2022” touch, which creates a device for telling the story of his and his family’s history: eight-generation Arkansans, whose arc bends from slavery to small business. He is deaf in his right ear, which prevented him from reaching his dream of becoming an astronaut. But it didn’t stop him from receiving a NASA scholarship, getting an education, and marrying (and having a family with) an Air Force veteran-turned-ER doctor along the way.
As Jones says, his message is oriented toward the future: “improving education opportunities from cradle to career, enhancing infrastructure from bridges to rural broadband, and making available every tool Arkansans need to build businesses and healthy families.”
This is forward-looking, aspirational, and not exclusionary of any group; Arkansans are Arkansans are Arkansans. The only time Jones so much as alludes to national politics is a four-second stretch of the video when he warns that “the last few years have shown just how easy it is to slip back in time,” over B-roll footage of 1/6 and marchers with tiki torches. In all, the video is about two minutes and forty seconds.
Okay, now back to Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
She, too, has released an introductory message about her campaign. It’s three times as long as Jones’s. And it goes like this:
Cue imagery of dark clouds at an elevation of 30,000 feet, “in the pitch black of night,” she says.
“With no lights on the plane or runway, Air Force One touched down in war-torn Iraq.”
Cue picture of Trump disembarking from his plane in a flight jacket.
It was Trump’s 2018 Christmas visit to Iraq. The POTUS walked into a cordoned off part of some large interior space and was greeted by a cheering assembly of troops. In Huckabee Sanders’s telling, a soldier shouted to Trump that he reenlisted because of the president, and Trump replied, “I’m here because of you.” That same soldier then walked over to Huckabee Sanders and complimented her for how she handled her “tough job.”
“I politely corrected him and told him, ‘Thanks, but I take questions—you take bombs and bullets, and that’s a tough job,’” she says. “The soldier silently reached up and tore the Brave Rifles patch from his arm and handed it to me, and said, ‘We’re in this together.’
“Overwhelmed with emotion and speechless, I just hugged him, with tears in my eyes and a grateful heart for our heroes who keep us free.”
We’re now 70 seconds into this video, and it’s not clear where it’s going. Until Huckabee Sanders makes it crystal that the “we” in “we’re in this together” includes herself, that soldier, Trump, and the Trump supporter watching her video. That’s it.
And that the point of telling this story is to frame the Arkansas gubernatorial race as a cultural struggle between “us” and “them.”
Huckabee Sanders says that she was the first White House press secretary to require Secret Service protection because of a credible violent threat against her, and that the country has seen violence in our streets. We need “law and order,” she says, and to resolve our differences peacefully. But the “radical left,” she charges, is all about government control from the top-down, and “their socialism and cancel culture will not heal America—it will only further divide and destroy us.
“Everything we love about America is at stake,” she says.
As a reminder, Huckabee Sanders is running to be governor of less than 1 percent of America’s total population.
Nevertheless, she goes all-in on the pitch: “With the radical left now in control of Washington, your governor is your last line of defense.”
We’re now at the 2:20 mark. At the same point in the Jones video, he’s making a closing pitch to Arkansans about opportunity and thriving families. In Huckabee Sanders’s video, we’re just getting started with the culture war. Here are some excerpts:
“As governor, I will defend your right to be free of socialism and tyranny.”
“I took on the media, the radical left”—this is the third time she’s used that term so far—”and their cancel culture”— the second time she’s used that term—”and I won.”
And then comes the pièce de #résistance:
“As governor, I will be your voice, and never let them silence you“—the italicized words here are clearly emphasized as she speaks.
Now let’s talk some realpolitik.
A Democrat can’t win the Arkansas governor’s race with a negative tone. It’s simply not possible as a matter of mathematics. So Chris Jones has to come at his campaign from a place of optimism.
But whether this optimism is innate or he’s showing it out of political necessity, Jones is selling something that Huckabee Sanders and Republicans like her say that Democrats by definition don’t have in stock. The opening salvo of his campaign is a civic-minded story about people making something of themselves. About people building things with their brains and their hands. This is a TED-talk-meets-pregame-locker-room-speech, not a message of “socialism” or “tyranny” or a “radical left” or “cancel culture,” or any similar warning that’s deprived of meaning when applied to people such as Chris Jones.
Which brings us to Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s choice. Unlike Jones, she can run on any story she wants and win. She could run on her family name, or policy positions in-line with a majority of Arkansas voters, or even just by framing her association with Trump as a positive credential: as relevant high-level experience, or as playing for the team that most voters in her state root for.
Yet even with that buffet of options available, Sarah Huckabee Sanders still chose grievance. She still chose fear-mongering. She still chose to stoke outgroup hatred.
The lesson from Arkansas is that while the Democratic party still can be many things, the Republican party is only one.