State Senator’s GOP departure raises questions about 2022 Gubernatorial race, future Arkansas politics


GRAVETTE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — One of Arkansas’ prominent Republican legislators announced Thursday he’s leaving the GOP. State Sen. Jim Hendren said he’ll continue to serve as an independent with a focus on bipartisanship.

“The time has come for me to address it publicly,” Hendren said in a 9-minute announcement video posted to YouTube.

Hendren, a lifelong Republican and nephew of Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), played a vital role in the state’s supermajority party rising to prominence. Dr. Janine Parry, an University of Arkansas political scientist, said he can be considered one of the party’s founding fathers in the state.

“He was a Republican in this state before almost anybody was a Republican,” Parry said.

In a sit-down interview with KNWA/FOX24 on Thursday, Hendren explained his decision stemmed from the Arkansas GOP embracing conspiracy theories related to the 2020 Presidential Election that ultimately led to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

“I was just incredibly disappointed with the Republican Party leadership throughout that,” Hendren said. “That was the final straw.”

In a statement, Party Chairwoman Jonelle Fulmer accused Hendren of performing a political stunt.

“Not once, to myself or my predecessor, has Jim Hendren ever picked up the phone to express concerns. He gladly received our substantial support over the years, including a mail piece from us last fall in his bid for re-election, where he ran on the Republican ticket a mere three months ago. The Republican Party has plenty of room for differing ideas. In fact, that is what has made us the majority party of Arkansas. Some of the concerns raised by Jim stem from a presidential primary five years ago, which calls into question his motivation now. This is nothing more than an attempt to garner press for a future independent candidacy for governor, knowing that he cannot compete with the conservative records of Attorney General Leslie Rutledge or Sarah Huckabee Sanders.”

Jonelle Fulmer, Arkansas GOP Chairwoman

Other prominent Republican state legislators took to social media to express their criticisms of Hendren, adding that the party is stronger without him.

“I’m not going to take cheap shots at the Republican Party or those that say it’s stronger without me,” Hendren said. “That’s, again, what I’m trying to say is wrong with politics today.”

Hendren said he’s talked with Hutchinson, who was “understanding.”

“He knows me well,” Hendren said. “We’ve known each other my whole life, and he knows my personality. He knows my frustrations. He and I both agree that there’s things that we need to change, and I have major respect for people like him.”

The Democratic Party of Arkansas also released a statement regarding Hendren’s departure from their major challengers.

“A leader in the Republican Party of Arkansas has declared he is leaving a party that has become too extreme, too radical, and too dangerous. He said what most of us already knew, that today’s Republican Party of Arkansas doesn’t focus on the needs of Arkansans but rather on the divisive rhetoric and issues that divide our country. While we applaud Sen. Hendren for having the courage of his convictions, this information about today’s Republican Party of Arkansas is not news to Arkansas Democrats. We have and will continue to support and lift up candidates whose sole focus has been on the communities in which they live and the state in which they love. These candidates have been focused on healthcare, strong support for public education, and opportunities for people to provide for their families regardless of their zip code. Sen. Hendren’s exit highlights the mistakes that have been made by blindly voting for Republicans based on the divisive national rhetoric. Arkansas Democrats have been and always will be the party that puts the people of Arkansas first.”

Michael John Gray, DPA Chairman

Hendren’s been connected to a possible candidacy in the 2022 governor’s race, but he declined Thursday to say whether that was his intention.

“We don’t even have an independent movement of any significance yet, so to make that decision now would be foolhardy,” Hendren said.

Instead, Hendren said he’s focused on growing a new organization called “Common Ground Arkansas” based around bipartisanship in state politics.

“We’ll worry about the [gubernatorial decision] after we work on what I think is the most important thing, which is building this organization,” Hendren said.

Parry, who conducts the annual Arkansas Poll to gauge the state’s political leanings and evolution, said she expects this group to be a springboard for a gubernatorial candidacy.

“This body that he wants to form, which seems to be a vehicle for a gubernatorial bid, looks like a viable strategy,” Parry said. “It’s probably a more-viable strategy than trying to win a Republican nomination against Sarah Huckabee-Sanders and this very Trump-oriented environment.”

Arkansas was one of a few states that got more Republican in the 2020 Election cycle, Parry said, and 63% respondents to last year’s poll said they approved of President Trump.

“We found not only the highest portions of Republicans that we’ve recorded, but we found the lowest portion of independents,” Parry said.

Because the state is indeed moving further to the right, Hendren has a steep hill to climb if he plans to upset Sanders or Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, two Trump-oriented Republicans vying for the position.

“The middle has been hollowed out,” Parry said, noting independents made up about 30% of Arkansas voters even just a decade ago. “He’s tried to move to the middle 6 to 8 years too late.”

Still, Parry said identification switching is an early indication of the collapse of a major political party, and she expects the Republican Party to slowly cave in before reforming in a new manner. In Arkansas, she said this process will take longer, and people like Hendren will struggle to find their footing for several decades.

Parry said Hendren will be remembered in Arkansas history for leading the state into this era.

“History will look at him as an early party switcher, as a very-early forerunner to a critical alignment in American elections,” Parry said. “He’s 10-20 years too early in the American national landscape, and he’s probably 30 years too early in the Arkansas landscape.”

Parry said there’s a possibility the Democratic Party throws its endorsement behind Hendren considering the party’s lack of power in state politics.

“The party is so small right now,” Parry said. “Odds are, he becomes the Democrats’ nominee. There may be other people in the race with Democratic bonafides, but the fact that most of the chatter [about Hendren] is among Democrats probably doesn’t bode well for this bid.”

Hendren insisted Thursday’s announcement was more about principles than aspirations, and he noted that he understood the path forward just got a lot less defined.

“I understand that if I want to run for a future office, it’s far easier to do that with a Republican label on my name than as an independent,” Hendren said.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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