Sarah Huckabee Sanders will issue the Republican rebuttal to tonight’s State of the Union tonight—a symbolic choice that shows the power of former President Donald Trump’s continued influence over the GOP, even after he basically ensured the party’s failures in last year’s midterm elections.
As one of the former president’s press secretaries, Sanders enjoys the dubious distinction of not just surviving the Trump White House without eliciting the former president’s wrath (a rarity), but thriving afterward. After a brief stint on cable news, she was elected governor of Arkansas last fall—proof, according to Politico, that there do exist some Trump-world associates who “could hitch themselves to Donald Trump, accumulate power in the process and, ultimately, outlive the most unsavory parts of the association.” Indeed, she managed to win her gubernatorial election without ever having run a campaign before.
Sanders also happens to be the daughter of former Arkansas governor (and failed presidential candidate) Mike Huckabee, and is, at 40, the youngest governor in the country. That makes her a relatively youthful choice for the State of the Union rebuttal, a contrast to President Joe Biden, many members of the House and Senate, and Trump himself.
During her Trump White House years (July 2017 to June 2019), Sanders was defined by her open hostility to the press and her unwavering support of the president, even during his most extreme moments. She largely abandoned the daily press briefing; when she stepped down, she had gone 94 days without hosting one. Sanders so embraced the Trump brand, in fact, that she took to lying on his behalf, telling reporters in May 2017 that Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey after White House officials “heard from countless members of the FBI” that they had lost confidence in him. Robert Mueller’s report concluded in April 2019 that that claim had been baseless.
Sanders left the Trump administration in June of 2019 not because of any scandals, or because she had fallen out of favor with Trump, but because she needed to return to Arkansas to prepare for her campaign. (The stated reason was that she wanted to spend more time with her children.) Trump announced her departure in an affectionate tweet, calling her “a very special person with extraordinary talents” and urging her to “run for Governor of Arkansas - she would be fantastic.”
At another event that same day, Trump kissed her on the side of the head and called her a “warrior.”
Just a month later, Sanders made an appearance at a Republican Governors Association-hosted retreat, encouraging rumors of her gubernatorial bid. Her father, in an interview shortly before that appearance, downplayed the rumors: “The truth is, she has not had time to come up for air in the past three years,” he said. “So she’s going to take some time to get her kids enrolled in school in Arkansas for the fall, go [on] vacation, just have some downtime—which is something she hasn’t done. And, you know, then she’ll start exploring.” And then the next month, Sanders launched a new website touting her Trump credentials. SarahforGovernor.com and SarahforArkansas.com were registered before she even left the White House. So that was that.
During her “downtime,” Sanders worked as a Fox News contributor, effectively continuing her role as a Trump spokesperson into the private sector, and published a memoir, in September 2020, dwelling on her admiration for the president and her resentment of the press and the left. Those efforts at stroking Trump’s ego garnered her an immediate and full-throated endorsement from Trump when she officially kicked off her campaign in January 2021.
Her campaign for governor of Arkansas—which raised many millions more than her opponents, a third of which came from out of state donors—focused on culture wars and on education, and of course, where those two topics intersect. (She recently declared the week of Jan. 23 to be “Parental Choice Week,” for example.)
As governor-elect, she chose one of Florida’s top education officials—someone credited with leading elements of the “don’t say gay” law there—to be her education secretary. And on her first day of office, she signed seven executive orders that included directives to freeze hiring in the state, ban “indoctrination and critical race theory in schools,” and ban the use of “Latinx” in state materials.
Sanders has also disbanded COVID-related working groups and committees at the state level, implying that her predecessor had “prioritized COVID-19 disproportionally and allowed other health concerns like addiction, cancer screenings, diabetes, and mental health to worsen.”
While we can expect some of the same themes from Sanders at tonight’s address, she also promised her speech would include an “optimistic vision for the future.” It’s unclear how that will fit into grievance politics, but it’s safe to say that she won’t be striking notes of unity.