The Arkansas Legislature’s former Republican Senate leader is no longer a Republican.
Last Thursday, state Sen. Jim Hendren of Gravette announced he was becoming an independent.
Hendren served until recently as Senate president pro tempore. He is also Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s nephew and close ally, which increased his influence.
But Hendren’s standing in the Republican Party has been diminished by his increasing bipartisanship, some of the stances he’s taken, and his obvious discomfort with the party’s direction.
Once a hard-right conservative, Hendren has evolved into a pragmatic problem-solver – like his Uncle Asa. He had a hard time making his peace with former President
Trump’s style and rhetoric going back to 2016. He voted for him in November, but Trump’s and the party’s actions since then and the attack on the Capitol Jan. 6 were the last straw.
Hendren is also starting an organization, Common Ground Arkansas, meant to provide a counterbalance to the factors he says are pushing politics to partisan extremes. The organization will support candidates and officeholders willing to reach across the aisle.
It prominently lists “create electoral pathways for independent candidates” as one of its goals.
Which leads to the other consideration, which is that Hendren has been contemplating running for governor in 2022 for quite some time. However, the Republican Party’s nomination looks to be locked up by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, daughter of former Gov. Mike Huckabee and, more importantly, press secretary for former President Donald Trump.
Naturally, some people are surmising that what Hendren really is doing is creating an electoral pathway for himself to run for governor as an independent.
Hendren told me that’s not so – that his motivation is reflected in the video he released announcing his decision. He said Common Ground Arkansas has “absolutely nothing to do with whether or not I’m going to make a bid for governor or not.”
“I’ve heard from my four adult children for the last four years that they don’t have a place where they feel like they have a political home, and I feel like I’m in a position where I need to try to work to change that,” he said. “So that’s what’s motivating me.”
Hendren isn’t yet saying what Common Ground Arkansas will actually do. He says announcements are coming soon about the organization’s activities and about its supporters. He doesn’t expect many legislators to actually become independents like him “until we give them a place to land, and that’s what Common Ground Arkansas is about.”
He picked an awkward time to publicly announce he was leaving the Republican Party.
He's in the middle of a legislative session where three-fourths of the legislators are Republicans. Reached Monday evening, his first day back at the Capitol after making his announcement, he said his colleagues had treated him fine. He is losing a committee chairmanship that is reserved for a member of the majority party, but he said that’s not a big concern.
Otherwise, he said the response to his announcement has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I thought I would be destroyed for this, but I’m telling you the feedback from people in my district, and from people in the state and from people from literally all 50 states and Canada has been a hundred to one positive,” he said. “I just don’t think people have fully grasped yet how hungry people are for somebody to say ‘Enough.’”
The question to be answered is, are there enough people saying “Enough” for Hendren’s efforts to take root? Many people don’t seem to want to seek common ground these days.
In last year’s annual Arkansas Poll by the University of Arkansas, 33% of respondents said they were independents, compared to 40% who said they were Republicans and 21% who said they were Democrats. However, most of the independents leaned toward one party or the other.
But then, so does Hendren. He’s still pretty conservative, but just not a Republican. He and his four adult children didn’t feel like they had a home, so he’s building a new one.
Whether or not it lasts depends on how many others move in.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist who focuses on Arkansas politics. He is a regular contributor to Talk Business and a frequent panelist on Arkansas PBS’s public affairs show, “Arkansas Week." He publishes a blog, independentarkansas.com . Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner .