HIGH PROFILE: Upbringing immersed in Arkansas politics prepared Sarah Huckabee Sanders for White House role

“I try to be polite, even when we disagree. I think that’s some of the Southern upbringing in me.”
“I try to be polite, even when we disagree. I think that’s some of the Southern upbringing in me.”

WASHINGTON -- Feb. 1, 2016, was a ballot box disaster for then-Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and his campaign manager, daughter Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

After trudging across Iowa for months, after spending $4 million, the former Arkansas governor had been overwhelmingly rejected by Hawkeye State Republicans.

A ninth-place finish. Just 3,345 votes. Only 1.8 percent of the total.

The Hope native's road to the White House ended that night. But his daughter's journey to Pennsylvania Avenue was just beginning.

Within a year, she'd be a presidential spokesman. And within 18 months, she'd be President Donald Trump's press secretary.

Sanders had realized all along that it would be tough for a traditional politician to sway Iowa voters in 2016.

She knew the state -- all 99 counties -- and she knew Iowans.

Her father had won the contest in 2008. But a lot had changed in eight years.

"They want somebody new and fresh that they don't know," she told an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter during the campaign's final days. "Our government has completely failed us, and they're looking for somebody that can maybe help shake things up and turn that around."

She realized, quickly, that Trump's message would resonate with millions of Republican voters. She liked the man and his family. And, while some viewed Trump as political kryptonite, Sanders was convinced he might actually win.

So when Trump offered her a job, later that month, Sanders took it. She would quickly become one of his highest-profile surrogates.

Her husband, Bryan Sanders, says Iowa turned out to be a launching pad, not a dead end.

"I don't think Sarah would be White House press secretary if not for her dad's campaign in 2016," he says. "In life sometimes, what appears to be failure ends up turning out to be a success."

Sanders' political roots go a lot deeper than Iowa. She traces them to Little Rock, where her dad served as governor and, before that, to Texarkana, where her father launched his first run for public office.

"I started in the political process when I was 9, and I never really stopped," the 35-year-old White House official says.

Her father was pastor of Pine Bluff's Immanuel Baptist Church at the time of her birth. He later served Texarkana's Beech Street First Baptist Church. He was elected as president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention in 1989.

In Texarkana, Sanders attended public schools and stayed out of trouble, an aunt, Pat Harris, says.

"She was a good little preacher's kid," she says. "I know it would be more fun if I could tell you about all of her shenanigans, but Sarah didn't really have any."

In 1992, the year Bill Clinton won the presidency, Huckabee launched a long-shot bid for the U.S. Senate, challenging Democratic incumbent Dale Bumpers.

Sanders, who turned 10 that year, was eager to help.

"I went and put out signs, and I loved every bit of it," she says.

Her involvement in politics may have been inevitable, according to Mack McLarty, a Hope native who has known her since she was a child. She's the granddaughter of a former Hempstead County clerk, he notes.

"I think politics and leadership, maybe it's in the DNA in that family," Clinton's former chief of staff says.


Arkansas Republicans, until recently, typically tasted defeat on Election Day; 1992 was no different.

Huckabee would fare better the following year, when he ran for lieutenant governor. In an effort to improve his chances, he brought in Dick Morris, a campaign consultant and pollster who had previously worked for Clinton.

At Huckabee's house, they fine-tuned their blueprint for victory. The Huckabee children were allowed to watch and often did. "Sarah and her brother David were always around," Morris said. "Sarah would listen intently, and I found myself sometimes briefing her as much as Mike."

Sanders loved the strategy sessions.

"I wanted to be in the middle of the heart of it all, so I had a front row seat that most people don't get until they're in their 20s and 30s," she says.

She helped her dad narrowly win the 1993 special election and secure re-election in 1994.

Then on July 15, 1996, in the wake of Gov. Jim Guy Tucker's Whitewater-related conviction, Huckabee became governor. He won full terms in 1998 and 2002.

The preacher's kid would spend her high school years in Arkansas' premier political parsonage -- the Governor's Mansion. It was an ideal place for a future press secretary to learn about effective message delivery.

"I lived with the king of soundbites," she says.

Sanders attended Central High School in Little Rock and, after graduation, enrolled at her father's alma mater, Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia. Hal Bass, one of her political science professors, says Sanders was "a very, very good student."

"She's bright. She's certainly articulate. She's poised. She has a good sense of humor, and it seems to me all of those attributes are on display as she serves in her current role," he said.

At OBU, Sanders was elected student body president and joined a high-profile 2002 lawsuit against three Arkansas elected officials, including her father. Huckabee didn't object. "He encouraged me to do it, and he encouraged me to team up with the ACLU," she says.

An Arkadelphia lawyer was trying to prevent college students from voting in the election, arguing that they weren't entitled to cast ballots because they weren't permanent residents there. A circuit court judge initially blocked hundreds of students -- including Sanders -- from voting in Clark County, a decision that would have prevented her from casting a ballot for her father's re-election.

A federal judge allowed the students to vote while the suit was pending, eventually ruling in their favor.

"It was a very interesting process," she says. "I felt like I learned a lot, just about the political system and some of the pluses and minuses and the brokenness of it, too."


Sanders had a brush with disaster that year while traveling with another Huckabee supporter between campaign events. The roads near Mountain View were slick with rain, and the car started to hydroplane as she went around a curve.

"There was a truck coming and we were going to hit the truck, so I tried to over-correct and when I did, we lost control and went off the side of the mountain," she says. "We flipped a couple of times. A tree stopped us from just tumbling all the way down the side."

The truck stopped and rendered assistance to Huckabee and her shaken passenger.

They refused to leave the scene until the Huckabee campaign banner had been retrieved from the smashed up vehicle.

After college, Sanders worked briefly for the George W. Bush administration in Washington, serving at the Education Department. Afterward, she threw herself into her father's 2008 presidential campaign.

Initially, Huckabee was an asterisk in the polls. But Sanders, Huckabee's national field director, camped out in Iowa and worked to change that.

"We were just this rag-tag team running across the state," says Chris Caldwell, a longtime family friend, campaign worker and Trump's pick to lead the Delta Regional Authority (Caldwell is awaiting confirmation by the Senate). "Everyone thought we had no chance."

Sanders focused on winning the 2007 Iowa presidential straw poll, a nonbinding but heavily covered summer contest that drew thousands of Republicans. She couldn't top the free food, transportation and entertainment that other candidates were doling out. But she found another way to capture people's attention as they waited to cast their ballots.

"We brought up a refrigerated truck of watermelons. Hope watermelons," Caldwell says.

Huckabee finished second that day, strong enough to give him credibility and a jump start. Ultimately, he would go on to win the 2008 Iowa caucus.

Sanders played an "integral part" in the Iowa upset, Caldwell adds. "Her natural leadership was so evident back then, just in the way she thought and the way we attacked that state, the strategy we put forth."

In Iowa, she met Bryan Sanders, a Kansas native who had signed on with Huckabee. The pair hit it off and began dating. They married in 2010. That year, she appeared on Time magazine's "40 Under 40," a list of young "rising stars of American politics."

She also spearheaded John Boozman's successful campaign for the U.S. Senate, helping him unseat incumbent Democrat Blanche Lincoln.

"I wouldn't be here without Sarah's master work," the senator said in June.

Working for Republican candidates helped prepare her for her White House work, Sanders says.

"In every campaign, you're dealing with the media. You're ... learning how to drive a story and deliver a message on a daily basis," she says.

As 2012 approached, Sanders set her sights on Iowa again, signing on as former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's senior political adviser. He dropped out after finishing third in the 2011 Iowa Straw Poll but departed the presidential race with heightened respect for Sanders.

"She is smart. She's strong, steady, reliable, strategic and likable and more," he says. "I just think the world of her."


Returning to Arkansas, Sanders focused on building a family. Her daughter, Scarlett, arrived in 2012. A son, Huck, followed in 2013. Her youngest, George, was born in 2015, just in time for his grandfather's unsuccessful White House bid.

Sanders spent the final days of that campaign in Iowa, hoping for an upset that never materialized. Once the race was over, she hurried back to Little Rock.

"I never planned, really, to leave Arkansas. I love my home state. I'm very proud to be from Arkansas," she says, pointing out the Arkansas Razorbacks license plate on display in her White House office.

If Democrat Hillary Clinton had won, she says, she'd still be enjoying life in Pulaski County. But Trump triumphed, and he wanted Sanders to join his team.

Shortly before the inauguration, Sean Spicer, the president-elect's press secretary at the time, offered Sanders a job as his principal deputy. She swiftly accepted. The next day, Trump phoned and personally welcomed her to the team.

The president quickly soured on Spicer, a transplant from the Republican National Committee, but Sanders' performance pleased him.

In July, Trump gave her a promotion.

Sanders' dad, Trump's former campaign rival, says the president consistently gives Sanders high marks. "He'll always say to me, 'Huckabee, I like you. You're a good guy. But your daughter, she's great. She's terrific,'" the former governor says.

"Sarah is pretty remarkable in her ability to manage three children, a marriage and one of the most high-pressure jobs literally on the planet. ... There are very few jobs where a person is on the high wire any more so than White House press secretary," Huckabee says.


Sanders is famous nowadays. Last month she appeared on The View -- facing off against moderator Whoopi Goldberg and a hostile studio audience. In August, her name appeared in a New York Times crossword puzzle. She's even been skewered on Saturday Night Live.

"She's definitely a much more high-profile figure now than she ever has been before," her husband, says. "Certainly in Washington, D.C., you don't go anywhere without Sarah being instantly recognized."

Her mother, Janet Huckabee, figures a press secretary's stress must be enormous. "I would just be on pins and needles if it were me. Actually, I'm on pins and needles because it's her," she says. "I just pray that, each day, she says things that make sense to the American people."

Some Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, have criticized the White House press operation, arguing that it isn't leveling with the American people.

When asked about Sanders during her own appearance on The View, Clinton said: "I honestly don't pay much attention to what she says. ... I'm sad about it [but] we're not getting the kind of information from this White House that we should have."

The press secretary says attacks don't faze her, adding, "I have, I think, pretty thick skin."

Boozman says Sanders' current job is "unimaginably hard."

McLarty, the former Clinton chief of staff, agrees.

"I think the three toughest jobs in the White House generally are regarded as the chief of staff position, the head of scheduling ... and the press secretary. That's the hot seat," he says. "She seems to me to have really handled it with grace and skill and competence and humility."

Sanders says she believes in treating people with respect.

"I try to be polite, even when we disagree. I think that's some of the Southern upbringing in me," Sanders says. "I think that you can disagree without being angry about it."

John Gizzi, White House correspondent for Newsmax, says Sanders is more composed than her predecessor.

"Sean was a very good man but, at the same time, he could get a little uptight with people and a little upset," Gizzi says. "With Sarah, you don't reach that point at all. She handles the pressure with a little more restraint."


Sarah Huckabee Sanders

Date and place of birth: Aug. 13, 1982, Little Rock

The last book I read was: Gone With the Wind.

The last movie I saw was: To Kill a Mockingbird.

My favorite band or musical performer: Journey.

My favorite color: Turquoise

The hardest thing about politics is: People’s misperceptions about you — thinking they know everything about you even though they’ve never met you.

The newspapers I read every day are: I read a daily clips package with articles from various newspapers and outlets.

What I miss most about Little Rock: Friends, family and Razorback football.

I’ve always wanted to travel to: Africa, on a safari.

The best advice I ever received was: Always be yourself and treat others the way you want to be treated.

Mike McCurry, a press secretary during the Clinton administration, says Sanders handled the transition well. "I think she had some very tough circumstances to fill in on short notice like that, and I think she's doing well," he said shortly after Sanders' promotion.


Special to the Democrat-Gazette/ALEX BRANDON

“She’s bright. She’s certainly articulate. She’s poised. She has a good sense of humor, and it seems to me all of those attributes are on display as she serves in her current role.” — Hal Bass, one of Sanders’ political science professors

Thanks to television, millions of Americans, including Trump, now tune in to White House media briefings from time to time. That makes the job especially challenging, McCurry says. "It's pretty tough when you know the boss is watching your every move."

High Profile on 10/15/2017

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