Sarah Huckabee’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night will be the payout for an incredible wager that many Republicans made in 2016: that they could join forces with Donald Trump, amass power, and eventually survive the most nefarious elements of the organisation.
It hasn’t always been successful. Several of Trump’s preferred candidates failed in competitive states and districts in the midterm elections. And there’s a whole slew of Trump supporters entangled in legal and political squabbles, including Rudy Giuliani, Roger Stone, and Steve Bannon.
Sanders, on the other hand, is among the wealthiest of those who did flourish. The former press secretary is now the governor of Arkansas, having beaten out dues-paying politicians who would have been frontrunners in another period. And she’ll be flanking Biden on behalf of the Republican Party on Tuesday night, a big responsibility for the year’s most watched political address.
“Most Republicans definitely did not suffer any consequences as a result of their relationship with Trump,” said Saul Anuzis, former chair of the Michigan Republican Party. “They most likely benefited from it.”
According to most accounts, delivering the State of the Union address is a terrible job fraught with political pitfalls. The most memorable speeches are remembered for the wrong reasons: spittle on one’s lips, a frantic grab for a water bottle at a nearby table.
However, being chosen for the answer is still an honour. It also provides a sense of where the opposition party is trending at the time. When Sanders delivers her speech, it will serve as a timely reminder that Trump’s impact on the Republican Party will likely linger for generations, even if many Republicans insist they are ready to move on from him.
Kevin McCarthy, dubbed “my Kevin” by Trump, will be standing behind Biden during his speech. Members of Congress will attend, including Ryan Zinke of Montana, a former Interior Secretary under Trump, and Max Miller of Ohio, a former Trump advisor. Ronna McDaniel, who went so far as to drop the family name to stay in Trump’s good graces, was re-elected chair of the Republican National Committee last month.
Several former Trump government officials, including Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, and Nikki Haley, are considering presidential runs. Even Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s main competitor for the Republican presidential nomination, credits Trump for the honour. He would have been a little-known former congressman if he hadn’t infiltrated Trump’s gubernatorial primary in 2018.
Indeed, DeSantis may have laid the groundwork for Sanders to follow. Before DeSantis drew Trump’s attention with his many Fox News appearances defending his presidency, then-Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam had fought his way through GOP circles and appeared to be on track to earn the party’s nomination.
None of the Republican candidates benefiting from Trump’s popularity are without their own selling pitches. Sanders, the daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, benefited from a conservative ancestry in her native state. And having her respond to Biden on Tuesday may help Republicans reconnect with suburban women who left the GOP during Trump’s presidency. Rep. Juan Ciscomani of Arizona will provide a Spanish-language rebuttal in an appeal to Latinos, with whom Trump made minor gains throughout his tenure.
In a tweet announcing the two politicians’ visits, House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik — a New York Republican whose own MAGA conversion improved her status in Congress — claimed the GOP “embodies the American dream.”
But there is another hope in the Republican Party in the post-Trump era: riding the Trump frenzy to prominence, and then — after two impeachments, Trump’s loss of the White House in 2020, and a disappointing midterm — living to make something more of it.
Sanders “was able to traverse Trump-world and emerge out the other side,” said John Thomas, a Republican strategist who heads a pro-DeSantis super PAC.
He called her work a “roadmap to victory in the post-Trump Republican Party.”
Sanders was a fairly typical political operative before to joining Trump’s administration. She worked on various campaigns, including her father’s, and was not a MAGA supporter. But she embraced the role, fought the press ferociously, and earned Trump’s trust in the process. Her experience in that job was as important to her as her political lineage when she entered the GOP race last year.
“It’s not only that [Sanders] was actually Donald Trump’s voice in those early, heady days,” Janine Parry, who oversees the Arkansas Poll, a poll housed at the University of Arkansas in Sanders’ home state, said. “She’s an old-school Republican, but she’s not an old-school Republican. She’s Trump, but she’s not Trump-Republican… She does seem to exist in two worlds.”
And how does a Republican walk the line between them? Right now, Sanders is doing what many Republicans are doing: expressing admiration for Trump but avoiding the topic of whether he should be president again.
“I love the president,” Sanders declared last month on Fox News when asked if she would support Trump’s 2024 campaign. “Right now, my concentration isn’t on 2024; it’s on here, in Arkansas,” she remarked.
Sanders said in a statement announcing her State of the Union appearance that she will contrast “the GOP’s bright vision for the future against President Biden and the Democrats’ failures.” It’s still early in her post-Trump career. And, as the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-opinion Gazette’s editor put it over the weekend, “she’s never held elective office of any type before.”
“What exactly qualifies her to be the national Republican Party’s standard bearer for one night?” Greg Harton, the editor, wrote.
Sanders will, however, have a post-Trump record. She has already begun to put one together. On her first day as governor, she signed an executive order prohibiting the use of the term “Latinx” in state government documents, as well as other orders addressing critical race theory and TikTok, all of which are conservative-friendly.
“She’s not sitting in an office waiting for the phone to ring so people can ask her what she thinks about an issue,” said Robert Coon, a Republican strategist in Little Rock, Ark. “She’s in charge of a state.”
Trump may have raised her fame, but, like everyone who survives their Trump experience, she will eventually establish her own record, according to Coon. “Make no mistake, it’s all about her,” Coon remarked. “She’s incredibly gifted. She is well-versed in politics. She’s quite intelligent.”