LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, once a White House press secretary for President Donald Trump, is set to return to the national stage when she delivers the GOP response to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address.
Sanders, 40, is giving the speech Tuesday night less than a month after being sworn in as the first female governor of Arkansas. The daughter of former Gov. Mike Huckabee, she is also the first Arkansan to deliver the response to a president’s State of the Union since Bill Clinton as governor in 1985.
With her speech, GOP leaders are giving a platform to a figure linked closely to Trump, who remains influential within the party even as Republicans question how much of a hindrance his quest to return to the White House has become. The star turn for Sanders also puts the spotlight on the nation’s youngest governor at a time when recent polling suggests that even many Democrats view the 80-year-old Biden’s age as a liability.
“I am excited for the nation to hear from Governor Sanders on Tuesday and witness a sharp contrast with this exhausted and failing administration,” Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement announcing Sanders’ selection last week.
Republicans have also tapped newly elected Rep. Juan Ciscomani, R-Ariz., to deliver a Spanish-language rebuttal to the president’s speech. And the progressive Working Families of Party will have another newcomer, Rep. Delia Ramirez, D-Ill., providing its response in both English and Spanish.
Biden is expected to use his speech before Congress to highlight his efforts to create jobs, fight inflation and improve the nation’s infrastructure. The president, who’s expected to announce in the next few months that he’ll seek reelection, faces a tough political environment and a divided Congress. Polling released this week by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed just 37% of Democrats say they want him to seek a second term.
Sanders, who served roughly two years as White House press secretary, focused heavily on her criticism of Biden during her successful bid for governor last year. She frequently railed against the Democratic president’s COVID-19 pandemic response, immigration policies and other stances.
But since the election, Sanders has mostly avoided weighing in on Trump, who endorsed her bid for governor and was featured in her campaign materials. Sanders hasn’t said whether she plans to endorse Trump, who’s making a third bid for president, and she didn’t mention the former president during her victory speech on election night.
Sanders has focused her attention on some of the former president’s favorite targets, signing several executive orders within hours of taking office that were cheered by conservatives. They included an order prohibiting the teaching of critical race theory in public schools and another banning TikTok from state devices.
Sanders has said her priority is getting her state’s majority-Republican Legislature to approve education legislation that she’s said will include teacher raises and some form of school choice allowing public money to be used to pay for private schools. She’s also called for phasing out the state’s income tax.
The speech is a reintroduction for Sanders, already well known from her time as press secretary and one of Trump’s closest aides. During her time as Trump’s chief spokesperson, she scaled back daily televised briefings after repeatedly sparring with reporters who aggressively questioned her.
She was regularly lampooned by late-night hosts and “Saturday Night Live,” which portrayed her as a dishonest loyalist to Trump with an exaggerated Southern drawl. But Sanders also built an intensely loyal following among Republicans, with frequent appearances on Fox News and other conservative-friendly media outlets.
Sanders is delivering the speech at a time when her predecessor, former Gov. Asa Hutchinson, is considering seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Hutchinson has been an outspoken critic of Trump and has said Trump being the GOP’s nominee would be the “worst scenario” for the party.