There’s an air of indifference surrounding the 2020 election cycle in Arkansas state politics. Outside of a few state House seats in Northwest Arkansas and Pulaski County, there is assumption on both sides that little will change in terms of the mostly Republican personnel holding legislative, congressional and U.S. Senate offices that will be on the ballot in the state next year. However, there is a very different perspective regarding election year 2022. It might well be the most energized election year in the state since 1978 when David Pryor was elected to the U.S. Senate following an intense primary and runoff, Bill Clinton was elected governor, and an array of new faces central to the state’s politics for years to come took control of the other statewide elected positions.
The latest evidence of the distinctiveness of 2022: the announcement by high-profile state Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway) that he would run for lieutenant governor in 2022, nearly three years before the May 2022 GOP primary that will likely determine the winner of the spot, which has little power but is a very real stepping stone to higher office (as current Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin hopes is the case as he runs for governor in 2022 when he is term limited in his current job). I cannot think of an announcement of a candidacy for a state office so far in advance of election day.
Few state legislators in Arkansas in the modern era have been higher profile than Rapert. Even in the pre-social media era, he would have been a regular media presence because of his push for the Ten Commandments Monument and his edgy quotes that denigrate liberals in general and pro-choice and pro-LGBTQ advocates in particular. But, Rapert’s social media prevalence has turned his volume up to 11, with some loving Rapert’s pillorying of liberals and others thoroughly despising Rapert’s style and substance. But, while many think him simply to be a gadfly, he’s a serious legislator on other issues, particularly insurance policy. His work in that area provides him ties to the insurance industry, which has the capability to bankroll political candidacies. Rapert has consistently been a well-funded candidate who combines large and small donors. This will again be the case as he runs for statewide office, combining plenty of political money to fund a modern campaign with the rarer ability to capture attention on social media. He will be the real deal as a statewide candidate running in a GOP primary electorate where most voters sympathize with his positions.
Indeed, a dozen years ago, when a small GOP electorate was dominated by religious conservatives, Rapert would have been the strong favorite to win the nomination. With winning the GOP primary being so much more consequential, the Republican electorate is now larger and a bit more diverse ideologically than was the case when Jim Holt (cut from a similar political cloth as Rapert) skated to the GOP lieutenant governor nomination in 2006. Despite his strengths as a candidate, the sense that Rapert cares more about himself than the party has to give Establishment Republicans deep concerns and a willingness to invest in a candidate more willing to play by conventional political rules, such as deferring to the candidate at the top of the ticket. It’s easy to see that a great deal of pressure will be placed on Sen. Jim Hendren (R-Gravette), said to have a deep interest in running for governor, to take on Rapert instead.
Rapert’s announcement follows weeks of rumors about another prospective high profile GOP candidate. Upon Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ departure from the White House, we were told by presidential tweet that the former presidential spokeswoman is eyeing a return to her childhood home in the Governor’s Mansion and all signs have been in accordance with that gameplan, much to the chagrin of Griffin, who returned from Congress in 2014 with a multiyear plan to be governor. Along with the political media, Democrats salivate at the thought of a Sanders-Rapert ticket in 2022. Unquestionably, it would activate the Democratic base (such as it is), would lure national Democratic donors to invest in the state and would encourage candidates to step up to run against them. Still, at the end of the day, if they were to win their party primaries, Sanders and Rapert would both be odds-on favorites to be sworn into office in January 2023. It would make for an era in state politics as full of drama as the Hutchinson era has been quaintly boring. Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.