by Mark Carter
It seems longer, but Sarah Huckabee Sanders had been away for just two and a half years when she returned home to Arkansas in August after a tour as President Donald Trump’s press secretary.
Grateful for the opportunity to serve as a member of Trump’s inner circle, Sanders nonetheless is happy to be back home. Given the environment in Washington, D.C., these days, who can blame her?
But it wasn’t a case of “I’ve had enough.” It wasn’t controversy or a contentious relationship with the White House press corps. The decision to return home, she says, was motivated by family. Sanders and husband, Bryan, a political consultant from Kansas City she met on the campaign trail in Iowa in 2008, have three children, ages 7, 6 and 4. The sometimes 20-hour work days of D.C. simply didn’t mesh with family.
But by no means is Sanders done with politics. If she were to launch a run for governor as many pundits speculate, Sanders would become an instant frontrunner given her name recognition and ties to Trump, who remains popular in Arkansas. But Doyle Webb, chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas, says that Sanders and the party have not been in communication about future plans since her return.
The daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sanders grew up surrounded by politics. It’s in her blood, after all. Before joining the White House staff first as deputy press secretary, Sanders was a senior adviser to the Trump campaign. Prior to that, she led her father’s 2008 presidential bid, was a campaign adviser for Arkansas Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton and and worked on the 2004 re-election campaign of President George W. Bush.
And of course, she spent many hours stuffing envelopes and joining her father on the campaign trail.
But Sanders’ own political aspirations will have to remain speculative for now, she says. She plans to spend the next year stumping for her former boss — she says Democrats’ impeachment plans will “unify” the GOP and help re-elect Trump — as well as Arkansas Republican candidates, mostly at the county level and for whom she’s waived all speaking fees.
She also plans to campaign for local candidates across the country with whom she’s built a personal relationship. Though Sanders and her husband maintain their Little Rock consulting firm, Second Street Strategies, she’s not taking on clients for this. She’ll appear for candidates as an individual and not as a campaign consultant, she says.
For now, her new chapter will entail campaigning for others only.
“I’ve received a tremendous amount of encouragement to run for governor from the president and many Arkansans, but Gov. [Asa] Hutchinson was just re-elected to a second term, and I want to help him continue to be successful rather than be a distraction,” she tells Arkansas Money and Politics. “When the appropriate time comes to make a decision for 2022, I’ll make the one that’s right for my family and for Arkansas. But right now, I’m focused on helping President Trump and Republicans up and down the ballot get re-elected in 2020.”
Though Sanders isn’t ready to talk about a potential campaign for governor, others are. Trump, of course, tweeted his support for her as a future governor when announcing her resignation, and a West Virginia man with no ties to Arkansas or Sanders launched a “Draft Sarah Sanders for Arkansas” political action committee. And two URLS — SarahforArkansas.com and SarahforGovernor.com — were registered anonymously in May.
Then there was her appearance at the Republican Governors Association meeting in Aspen, Colo., earlier this year. And in late August, Sanders launched her own site, SarahHuckabeeSanders.com, perceived by many as a precursor to an official campaign site. But Mike Huckabee insists that any future political plans his daughter may harbor remain down the road.
“Sarah loved her job and never would’ve left,” he tells Arkansas Money and Politics. “She’s still focused on helping President Trump win re-election. But the job was so demanding. She finally got to a place where she knew she needed to be with her family more.”
Sanders has other irons in the fire. Shortly after her return to Arkansas, Sanders signed with Fox News and currently can be seen and heard across its media spectrum. Plus, she signed a book deal in September with St. Martin’s Press for a memoir of her time in the White House set for a fall 2020 release.
For now, she says her sole focus is settling back down in Arkansas, whatever the future may hold. She says leaving the White House was the hardest professional decision she’s ever made but the easiest personal one.
“Arkansas has always been my home and being away from family and friends and the state I love was one of the hardest parts of my job in the White House,” she says. “The transition from Washington back home to Arkansas has been great. We have three kids, and they’re so happy to be home.”
Sanders packed a lot into her two-year Washington sojourn. She sat at the table with Trump and Kim Jong-un at the first U.S.-North Korea summit last year and then traveled to Iraq with the president to visit troops on Christmas Day. Her staunch defense of Trump led to sometimes bitter engagement with members of the national press, especially after “heat of the moment” comments she made regarding the firing of former FBI Director James Comey. But she doesn’t regret any part of her tenure in the White House.
“Certainly there are things I would’ve done differently looking back,” she says. “I’m not perfect, and I make mistakes and might do things differently. But I’m not regretful of the decisions I made. I’m very proud of the job I did and the accomplishments of the administration over the last two years.”
The White House experience will serve her well down the road, regardless of whether that entails a run for office, Sanders says. “Those are the moments that helped prepare me for the next level. They make us stronger, make us better and sharper.”
One Arkansas Republican political strategist who requested anonymity believes Sanders indeed will run in 2022 when Hutchinson is term-limited out of office. He thinks the state is poised for a loaded GOP primary with Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin telling Arkansas Money & Politics last month that he’s running.
“Every indication I’ve seen points to that,” he says. “The chatter in D.C. seems to be making the rounds that she’ll run. I think it’ll be, quite frankly, the biggest primary this state has seen since the 2010 Republican U.S. Senate race, and maybe the biggest in the state since the 1978 Democratic primary that had Jim Guy Tucker, David Pryor and Ray Thornton.”
Boozman went on to win a crowded 2010 GOP primary before unseating Blanche Lincoln in the general election as part of the Republican Party’s takeover of the state’s congressional delegation. Pryor won that ’78 primary, which featured three of the state’s Democratic heavyweights, before facing token opposition in November and going on to serve in the Senate for 18 years.
Sanders, meanwhile, is focused on meeting the upcoming first deadline for her memoir. Her family is settled and happy and about to welcome a new addition — golden retriever puppy Traveler. “We love being home,” she says.
And if she ever does run for office, Sanders has an ace up her sleeve.
“I‘ve been stuffing envelopes for my dad since I was 9 years old, so maybe in a few years he’ll be nice enough to return the favor,” she says. “However, if I am running for office, I think he has a few more useful skills that I would hope to put to good use.”