The new year brings many questions in Arkansas politics, many but not all of which will be answered before next Dec. 31. For example:
Can anyone stop Sarah Huckabee Sanders from becoming Arkansas’ next governor? Short answer: Probably not. Sanders had raised $11 million as of Sept. 30 and has no Republican opposition in a state dominated by Republicans. At this point, it would take an unforeseen event – a health or family issue, for example – to keep Sanders from returning to the Governor’s Mansion where she grew up.
What will happen in the other state races? Short answer: Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin is probably your next attorney general, but it’s too early to know about the other races. Everybody and their dog is running as a Republican for lieutenant governor, so there likely will be a runoff between the top two finishers. In the secretary of state’s race, incumbent John Thurston should have the advantage over Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, and former Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot. But in this environment, who knows?
Will the fiscal session expand? Short answer: Probably. The session, which convenes Feb. 14, will be the last time lawmakers meet in a regularly scheduled session while Gov. Asa Hutchinson is in office. The sessions are supposed to focus on budget issues, but lawmakers can address other topics with a two-thirds vote. Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, will seek to pass a version of Texas’ law allowing uninvolved private citizens to sue abortion providers and abettors. Other lawmakers will have their own bills.
Speaking of the Legislature, who will be leading it moving into 2023? Short answer: Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, appears confident he will be elected by the members to a third term this year, but the Senate appears to be more competitive. Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, for some reason still wants the job despite the Senate’s acrimonious environment. He has two challengers: Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, and Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton.
How much will Arkansas voters change the Constitution? Short answer, they’ll vote for one or two of the three proposed amendments referred to the ballot by the Legislature. An amendment to prohibit the government from burdening citizens’ religious freedom will easily pass. I don’t know what will happen with a second that would increase the required majority for citizens to pass initiated acts and constitutional amendments from 50 percent to 60 percent. A third would let lawmakers call themselves into special session. I’ll be shocked if it passes.
Will Sen. John Boozman be returning to Washington? Short answer: Don’t bet against him. He does face three primary challengers, including Jake Bequette, who has at least one high-dollar supporter, and Jan Morgan, who won 30 percent of the vote challenging Gov. Asa Hutchinson in 2018. The other is Stuttgart pastor Heath Loftis. But Boozman doesn’t lose elections. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 2001 after winning 53 percent of the vote in an eight-candidate Republican Party primary race. As an officeholder, his formula has been to keep a low profile and then ramp things up during an election year. It’s worked so far.
What will Gov. Hutchinson do next? Short answer: Only he may know, and he probably doesn’t. He leaves office in January 2023 and has said repeatedly he’s not ready to retire. He has not said no to a presidential run. It’s hard to see how the 71-year-old Reagan Republican fits into today’s party, which is dominated by former President Donald Trump. But he has a high profile and would have other options.
Will Sen. Tom Cotton run for president? Short answer: It depends on what Trump does. The Iowa-visiting Cotton surely acts like someone with presidential ambitions, and anyone who really wants to run for president in 2024 will need to decide by the end of 2022. But the Republican Party is still Trump’s party, and it will be tough for anyone to oppose him – if he runs.
What will Trump do? Short answer: You tell me. He’s either running for president, or he’s not. And he may not say which this upcoming year.