LITTLE ROCK—Long before she became the spokeswoman for the Trump administration, former Texarkana resident Sarah Sanders was a well-known figure in Arkansas who appeared in campaign ads for her dad and learned about the state's rough-and-tumble politics by working on his campaign and others.
Now, speculation that Sanders may run for governor in her home state shakes up a race that's three years away but was already expected to be a crowded and expensive fight among Republicans.
Trump announced Thursday that Sanders was leaving as White House press secretary and encouraged her to run for Arkansas governor, a job her dad held for 10 years. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson was re-elected in November and the seat will open up in 2022 when he's barred by term limits from running again.
Sanders hasn't ruled out running for office when she returns to Arkansas. Aside from her experience working for a president who remains popular in Arkansas, she'd have name recognition and experience that goes back to former Gov. Mike Huckabee's first run for office nearly three decades ago, GOP leaders say. Sanders is a native of Hope, Ark., and grew up in Texarkana, where she attended Arkansas High School and where her father was pastor of Beech Street Baptist Church.
"Certainly she's grown up in (the state's politics). Not only has she grown up in it, she's experienced it at every level," said U.S. Sen. John Boozman, whose 2010 campaign Sanders managed.
Her dad no longer lives in Arkansas, but Sanders could still tap into the same network of supporters who helped elevate him to the governor's mansion and backed his unsuccessful White House bids if she runs for the state's top office, political observers say.
"You've got a core group of people who have rallied around the Huckabees since that first race in 1992," said Rex Nelson, a senior editor for The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and former longtime aide to Huckabee.
No one has announced a bid for governor in Arkansas, where Republicans control every statewide office and both chambers of the Legislature. The other potential candidates include some of the state's top GOP officials, including Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and state Senate President Jim Hendren.
Griffin applauded Sanders' return to her home state on Twitter: "Like all Arkansans I thank Sarah for her service to realDonaldTrump and welcome her back to Arkansas!"
Rutledge, who worked in Huckabee's office and on his presidential campaign, said she was glad Sanders was coming home. Rutledge said she's been approached by numerous people asking if she'd run, but said it's premature to talk about 2022 with next year's election approaching.
"I think it's too early for people to speculate," she said.
Hendren also said he's had several people ask him to consider running, but said it's too early to make any decisions.
"I'm not going to rule anything out, but it's pretty premature to start spending a lot of time on that decision," said Hendren, who is the governor's nephew.
The possibility of Sanders running is enticing to Democrats, who say it would draw national attention and money to a race that otherwise would be written off.
"There are probably a number of Democrats who would love to step up and challenge Sarah Huckabee Sanders if she was going to be the nominee," state Democratic Party Chairman Michael John Gray said.