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Sarah Huckabee Sanders is expected to win Republican primary for Arkansas governor

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Arkansas tomorrow, former President Trump's White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is expected to easily win the Republican primary for governor. As KUAR's Daniel Breen reports, her campaign has been low-key, expensive and unlike anything the state has seen before.

DANIEL BREEN, BYLINE: Even before her campaign began, Sarah Huckabee Sanders nabbed a key supporter.

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DONALD TRUMP: Folks, if we can get her to run for the governor of Arkansas, I think she'll do very well. And I'm trying to get her to do that.

BREEN: Then, a year and a half after that quasi-endorsement from then President Donald Trump, Sanders formally announced her bid for the job once held by her father, Mike Huckabee. She entered the race less than a week after President Joe Biden took office.

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SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Everything we love about America is at stake. And with the radical left now in control of Washington, your governor is your last line of defense.

BREEN: Much of Sanders' campaign rhetoric focuses on national issues, positioning herself as a crusader against the liberal agenda, cancel culture and government overreach.

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HUCKABEE SANDERS: I keep hearing, oh, there's that Sarah Sanders. She's nationalizing the race.

BREEN: It seemed an easy target for her initial primary challengers, the state's attorney general and lieutenant governor. Both accused her of ignoring statewide issues and only appealing to a national audience. But Sanders stuck to her guns.

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HUCKABEE SANDERS: And my answer to those people, you bet I am, because if you are not, you are missing what is happening in our country.

BREEN: And it's proven effective. Both of those challengers, established conservatives with statewide name recognition, eventually dropped out. Heather Yates teaches political science at the University of Central Arkansas and says those attacks backfired on her challengers, who were then seen as too narrow-minded.

HEATHER YATES: That was enough for the Arkansas voter. They don't really require Sarah Sanders to talk about local issues. And so her entire campaign is about Arkansas's place in the national spectrum.

BREEN: Unlike Trump, Sanders tends to steer clear of large campaign rallies in favor of smaller events in mainly rural, largely white communities. She also rarely gives interviews. Yates says that's gotten more popular with the GOP since Donald Trump.

YATES: There's a difference between candidates engaging the media directly versus having the media talking about them.

BREEN: When it comes to policy, we haven't heard a lot from Sanders. The one big one - her proposal to end the state's income tax. Her father, former Governor Mike Huckabee, supports that despite having raised taxes during his time in office.

MIKE HUCKABEE: You obviously can't just go in and slash it. That's not realistic. And that's why Sarah has been real clear about saying she will do it gradually, and she'll do it with the combination of economic growth.

BREEN: Also, Sanders has been vocal about giving control over school curriculum back to districts. Overall, Sanders' brand of Republican politics would be very different than the incumbent governor, Asa Hutchinson.

Mark Cekoric came to see Sanders at an appearance at a Dairy Queen in suburban Little Rock earlier this month. He says he wants to see national GOP politics, more in line with her platform and that of other further-right political figures like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

MARK CEKORIC: The Republicans too long have talked a good game but have never delivered. And I think that's the case with Hutchinson. And somebody like DeSantis talks the game and then does the walk. I think that's important.

BREEN: And in a red state, with a record-breaking $14 million campaign war chest, the 39-year-old Sanders is all but sure to win in November, when she's expected to become the state's first woman to be elected governor. For NPR News, I'm Daniel Breen in Little Rock.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.