LITTLE ROCK— 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, the Associated Press reported last week.
But state Republican officials are questioning the lawmaker’s motive.
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.
Hendren has clashed with Republicans in the state on other issues. He’s the lead sponsor of a hate crimes bill that has drawn resistance from some conservatives and he was the only Republican in the Senate to vote against a “Stand Your Ground” bill that loosened restrictions on when deadly force can be used in self-defense.
Hendren’s decision keeps him out of a GOP primary that has been overshadowed by former White House spokesman Sarah Sanders’ recent 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.
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.
In a statement released Thursday morning, Jonelle Fulmer, chairwoman of the Republican Party of Arkansas, said Hendren had never expressed concerns to her or her predecessor.
Fulmer said Hendren had “gladly received” financial support from the party in the past when he ran for reelection as a Republican.
“The Republican Party has plenty of room for differing ideas,” Fulmer said in the statement. “In fact, that is what has made us the majority party of Arkansas.”
The concerns Hendren raised were related to the Republican primary election five years ago, calling into question the motivation for his announcement.
“This is nothing more than an attempt to garner press for a future independent candidacy for governor, knowing that he cannot compete with the conservative records of Attorney General Leslie Rutledge or Sarah Huckabee Sanders,” Fulmer said in the statement.