BUDDY SYSTEM: Sanders throws her support to Arnetta Bradford in a Republican runoff marred by accusations of dirty tricks.

Add state Rep. DeAnn Vaught of Horatio to the list of Republicans crying foul over shenanigans in a GOP runoff for state representative in south Arkansas.

Long-serving Republican legislators Sen. Jimmy Hickey and Rep. Carol Dalby of Texarkana are blowing the whistle on what they say was a scheme to deliver retiring Republican Rep. Danny Watson’s seat to a governor-approved candidate with as little fuss as possible.

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Watson represents House District 88, which includes Hope. Hickey and Dalby say a representative from Gov. Sarah Sanders’ office offered Watson a lucrative seat on the state parole board if he would find a Sanders-friendly Republican to replace him in District 88 who could be easily and inexpensively elected.

Hickey says Watson pretended he would be running for reelection — and lied to others about his plans — in order to hold the seat open for the governor’s office’s preferred candidate.

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The District 88 race pits Sanders pal Arnetta Bradford, a newcomer to politics, against Dolly Henley, who’s being endorsed by some local old-guard Republican lawmakers. The two are competing in a runoff to be the Republican candidate. The winner will face a libertarian candidate in November.

Vaught hasn’t weighed in publicly on the quid pro quo accusation, but in a Facebook post Sunday she called out what she characterized as dirty tricks on behalf of the Sanders-favored candidate. Vaught’s full post is embedded below.

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Text messages and mailers from an out-of-state group reportedly accuse Henley, Bradford’s opponent in the April 2 Republican runoff, of secretly being a Democrat because she’s voted in Democratic primaries in the past, but Vaught notes that Bradford has hardly any history of voting at all.

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Indeed, records kept with the Arkansas secretary of state’s office confirm Bradford has voted in only two elections: the May primary and the November general election in 2022.

Chris Powell, a spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office, provided information on Bradford’s voting history.

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“According to our records, she registered to vote on 7/29/2008. In 2011, per the NVRA [National Voter Registration Act], she was sent a mailer due to inactivity and was moved from Active to Inactive status,” Powell said by email Wednesday. “She was sent another mailer in 2017 and was moved from Inactive to Removable and was removed from the rolls for inactivity.  She re-registered to vote in 2021.  The attached report shows that she has only ever voted in 2022.”

That report shows Bradford cast ballots twice in 2022.

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Bradford’s campaign finance reports show that she has raised a total of $14,761.81, including money contributed toward both the primary and general elections. Of this, $6,600, or nearly 45%, came from Gov. Sanders’ PAC, Team SHS.

Adding another twist to this already strange tale, Dolly Henley has been endorsed by and received a $1,000 contribution from former Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sanders’ father. Henley has acknowledged that she’s voted in Democratic primaries: Like many Arkansas conservatives, she’s shifted party allegiance over the decades. Now, though, Henley said she is firmly in the Republican camp. 

WISCONSIN FOR BRADFORD: Mystery mailers from Wisconsin to District 88 voters tout Arnetta Bradford’s connection to the governor.

“Dolly is running to represent the PEOPLE OF THE DISTRICT 88, not for any out-of-state interest groups!!” Vaught wrote on Facebook Sunday. “And it is evident by who has supported her financially and by those endorsing her! Who is supporting her opponent… DARK SWAMP MONEY from out of state interest groups!! So maybe you should ask yourself this question… why are out-of-state interest groups so eager to spend all the money they can to get Dolly’s opponent elected.. could it be that she will represent their interests instead of the District 88 interests?!? It makes one stop and think!”

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But Vaught’s accusations about swampy money being spent on Bradford’s behalf are small potatoes compared to Hickey’s accusations. A seat on the state parole board comes with a six-figure salary. If Hickey is right that the governor’s office offered retiring Rep. Danny Watson such a job if he would deliver a Sanders-friendly replacement to fill his House seat, that deal would likely violate state law.

An email shared by Mineral Springs Mayor Bobby Tullis* on Facebook added fuel to Hickey’s allegations that Watson misrepresented his plans and suggested to constituents that he was running for reelection — all to dissuade anyone else from filing to run for the seat. Here’s the email:

On Tuesday, Tullis confirmed the authenticity of the email. He’d considered running for the District 88 seat but abandoned the idea after Watson said on Oct. 1 that Watson planned to run again. 

“I was not certain to do anything, but I did not want to run against an incumbent,” Tullis said by email Tuesday.

Notably, the email exchange between Tullis and Watson took place Oct. 1, the day before Watson is alleged to have told Rep. Dalby he was not seeking reelection. The allegation is outlined below in a Monday Facebook post from Hickey. Both he and Dalby said Tuesday that they stand by the post, which is embedded below.

An email sent to the governor’s communication team about the alleged quid pro quo deal in southwest Arkansas has so far not elicited a response. 

Correction: Bobby Tullis is the current mayor of Mineral Springs. A previous version gave inaccurate information about his tenure in office. The story has since been updated.