A Fight for the GOP in Arkansas

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Jake Bequette, then of the Arkansas Razorbacks, on September 10, 2011 in Little Rock, Arkansas. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Arkansas, like most Southern states, was a Democratic stronghold for nearly 150 years. It sent Democratic delegations to Congress for most of its history and was home to stalwart Southern Democrats like William Fulbright and John McClellan and state-level politicians like Orval Faubus. It wasn’t until 2015 that Arkansas sent its first all-Republican delegation to Congress, snuffing out the Blue Dog remnant that had survived the state’s slow but steady partisan realignment.

With a rich rural character and nearly 80 percent of its adult population identifying as Christian, Arkansas has a naturally conservative electorate. After trading support between Republican and Democratic presidential candidates in the decades following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the state decisively broke for Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020.

As the electorate grows more solidly Republican, candidates like Jake Bequette are challenging perceived “establishment” candidates like the Trump-endorsed incumbent, Senator John Boozman. Bequette, a former professional football player (a New England Patriot after playing for the University of Arkansas Razorbacks) and Army Ranger, is hoping that the state’s allegiance to former President Trump signals a populist shift within the Arkansan electorate that will sweep self-described “America First” candidates to power—even those, like Bequette, who didn’t win Trump’s endorsement.

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John Boozman has a long history in national politics. He ousted a Democratic incumbent in his election to the House of Representatives in 2001, and served in the lower chamber for a decade before his election to the Senate in 2011. He is a member of the Senate Agriculture and Veterans Affairs committees, both of which attend to issues vital to everyday Arkansans.

Boozman is described by insiders as a quiet figure who represents an older brand of conservative politics, and his reputation as an establishment politician derives as much from his style as his record.

“Boozman is a mild-mannered guy…. He’s not going to be the guy that grabs the megaphone and starts screaming the loudest in the room,” said Roby Brock, editor-in-chief of Talk Business & Politics, a news organization covering politics in Arkansas. “He’s a lot more, as he describes himself, of a workman kind of candidate and politician.”

Jake Bequette argues that Boozman is insufficiently conservative for deep-red Arkansas, pointing to Boozman’s votes to confirm progressive judges and for budgets that fund Planned Parenthood. He claims Boozman’s demure persona and reluctance to do media make the incumbent the wrong choice for an electorate that wants big, bold leadership.

“I think in a larger sense, Republicans in Arkansas and across the country, they recognize there is a huge chasm between the beating heart of the grassroots, the base, and their elected leaders,” Bequette said. “I think the people of Arkansas realized that Senator Boozman is not leading from the front.”

Boozman and Bequette differ sharply on foreign policy. Boozman has said he believes in a “proactive foreign policy agenda” and boasts of having authored the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment (WEEE) Act, which attempts “to help eliminate global gender-related barriers and empower female entrepreneurs around the world.” Boozman recently called for the transfer of Polish fighter jets to Ukraine, signed a letter calling on the Biden administration to send additional military aid to Israel, and said he believes that a “proactive” American presence on the world stage has played a role “in ending global health epidemics” and “reduc[ing] the trafficking of arms.”

Bequette frames his foreign policy in terms of America’s national interest.

“I’m not an interventionist. My experience deployed to Iraq, it didn’t take me very long to understand the folly of nation building, of trying to impose or to project our ideas of a nation state or a civil society on a country that simply doesn’t have that foundation,” Bequette said. “And I think that there’s a corollary to that in Eastern Europe. We should be fighting to secure our own borders. We should be fighting to secure our own territorial sovereignty of defending American citizens before worrying about the territorial sovereignty of the frontier of Eastern Europe.”

Bequette describes himself as an “America First” candidate, and his remarks on foreign policy certainly sound more Trumpian than Boozman’s focus on “gender-related barriers” facing “female entrepreneurs around the world.” But in early March, Trump endorsed Boozman, calling the incumbent “a great fighter for the people of Arkansas” who “is tough on crime, strong on the border, a great supporter of our military and our vets.”

Boozman’s staff did not respond to a list of questions from The American Conservative, but highlighted the candidate’s endorsement from Trump and several prominent Arkansans.

“Senator Boozman has always been a workhorse, not a show pony, and he continues to visit every corner of the state running on the strong, conservative principles Arkansas Republicans know he fights for in the Senate. That’s why President Trump, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Senator Cotton all agree he’s the candidate to back,” said Jimmy Harris, Boozman’s campaign manager.

Despite the former president’s endorsement of the incumbent, Bequette has positioned himself as the Trumpier candidate in the race. In an attempt to outflank Boozman, Bequette highlighted the incumbent’s remarks in a surreptitious recording from April, in which Boozman said there wasn’t widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. Boozman, who has publicly endorsed the legitimacy of the 2020 election results, has also called the election “free and fair.”

Bequette thinks Boozman’s remarks are typical of “career politicians” who “say one thing to their voters in public, and then they say another thing behind closed doors, or when they think no one’s listening.”

If Mike Lindell-style machinations about the wiles of Dominion election software represent the “hard” version of the stolen-election theory, then Jake Bequette defended the “soft” version of the theory in an interview with The American Conservative, focusing on unconstitutional changes to state-level election laws in the run up to the 2020 election. Bequette told me that he does not think the 2020 election results were legitimate and said he would not have voted to certify the election results if he were in the Senate at the time.

“I’ve been very clear, that is one clear distinction between me and Senator Boozman,” Bequette said. “He said that the 2020 election was free and fair, which—even some Republicans who say the election wasn’t stolen, they still won’t go as far as Senator Boozman did and agree with Joe Biden and that the election was free and fair. That’s absolutely ridiculous. There were many unconstitutional changes made to state election laws using the pretext of the pandemic. I never would have voted to certify the 2020 election like Senator Boozman did.”

Brock said Boozman’s remarks could make a difference to populist elements within the Republican base in Arkansas, but thinks most voters who know and trusted Boozman in his prior election bids won’t be moved.

“I don’t think it peels any of those [more moderate] voters off, at least not in a big enough way…” Brock said. “I still think that faction is bigger than this new-to-the-Republican-party group of voters who are upset about the 2020 election results.”

Bequette thinks he’s wrong, and hopes the populist energy in the state, focused on issues beyond the 2020 election, will put him over the top in May 24’s Republican primary.

“There’s a strong populist streak in Arkansas. You could put us firmly in the America First category,” he said, “and I’m the America First candidate in this race.”

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