LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A longtime Arkansas legislator and nephew of the state’s Republican governor said Thursday that he’s leaving the GOP, citing Donald Trump’s rhetoric and the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol by the former president’s supporters.
State Sen. Jim Hendren’s announcement closes the door on him seeking the party’s nomination for governor next year, but he said he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of running as an independent. Hendren said that decision is on the “back burner” as he focuses on an organization he formed aimed at helping independent candidates.
Hendren, the nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, had been more willing than other Republican figures in the state to criticize Trump. In a nine-minute video announcing his decision, he cited Trump’s insults about immigrants, women, and John McCain, as well as his false attacks on the election’s legitimacy leading up to the Jan. 6 riot.
“For me, that day was the final straw,” Hendren said. “I asked myself, what in the world would I tell my grandchildren when they ask one day, what happened and what did I do about it?”
Hendren has clashed with Arkansas Republicans on other issues. He’s the lead sponsor of a hate crimes bill that has drawn resistance from some conservatives and was the only Republican in the Senate to vote against a “Stand Your Ground” bill that loosened restrictions on the use of deadly force in self-defense.
Hendren’s decision keeps him out of a GOP primary that has been overshadowed by former White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders’ candidacy. Sanders, the daughter of former Gov. Mike Huckabee, indicated she would lean heavily on Trump and his rhetoric with an announcement video vowing to fight the “radical left.”
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge is also running for the party’s nomination, while Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin dropped out of the race last week to instead run for attorney general. Hutchinson, who has been in office since 2015, is barred by term limits from seeking reelection.
James “Rus” Russell, who runs an outpatient mental health clinic in Little Rock, is the only Democrat who has announced he’s running.
The head of the state GOP questioned the timing of Hendren’s announcement, saying he couldn’t compete with Sanders or Rutledge.
“This is nothing more than an attempt to garner press for a future independent candidacy for governor,” State Republican Party Chairwoman Jonelle Fulmer said in a statement.
State Democrats said Hendren’s decision showed how the GOP had become too divisive and not focused on the state. “Sen. Hendren’s exit highlights the mistakes that have been made by blindly voting for Republicans based on the divisive national rhetoric,” State Democratic Chairman Michael John Gray said in a statement.
Hendren is a former president of the state Senate who has served in the chamber since 2013. Previously, he had served in the state House of representatives from 1995 until 1999. Hutchinson said he believed his nephew’s motivations were pure, but defended the Republican Party’s work on issues such as tax cuts and abortion restrictions.
“While I understand and identify with the concerns expressed by Sen. Hendren, I am convinced that for me the best pathway for continued conservative governance is through the GOP,” he said in a statement.