Oct 24, 2022 - Politics

Arkansas candidates face off for gubernatorial debate

Gubernatorial candidates Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Chris Jones and Ricky Dale Harrington Jr.

Gubernatorial candidates Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Chris Jones and Ricky Dale Harrington Jr. Photo: Courtesy of Arkansas PBS

Arkansas' three gubernatorial candidates met Friday morning to debate the issues, barb opponents and make their case to be elected the state's leader.

The big picture: It was the first and only time Arkansans have seen all three candidates face one another and answer the same questions in this election cycle.

  • Democratic candidate Chris Jones and Libertarian Ricky Dale Harrington Jr. have debated before.

Why it matters: The next governor will inherit a record revenue surplus and statewide economic opportunity. But they'll also have to grapple with poor health statistics, low education scores, climbing crime rates and a role in the country's culture wars over abortion and transgender rights.

State of play: Seconds after the broadcast concluded, a statement from Republican Sarah Huckabee Sanders' campaign self-declared she won the debate. A spokesperson did not respond when asked by what metric the campaign determined her win.

  • The former White House press secretary declined to participate in an individual press conference that traditionally follows. The spokesperson told Axios she had answered questions for an hour, and "the debate speaks for itself."

Quick take: The candidates had limited time to elaborate, but a few key issues emerged:

1. When asked if the gubernatorial election was more about state or federal politics, Jones and Harrington agreed their primary focus is Arkansas and the success of the state.

  • Sanders said there should be a balance, adding she believes there are "failures" coming from Washington, D.C., but if elected, she would focus on making positive changes in the state.
  • Reality check: To date, Sanders' campaign ads position her mostly in opposition to the Biden administration, rather than her gubernatorial competitors.

2. On economic vitality, both Sanders and Harrington agree there should be fewer taxes, so citizens have more money. This includes a phased elimination of state personal income taxes, and they noted the government should be more efficient and expect better results from its fiscal spending.

  • Jones, a scientist by trade, said he's for reducing taxes, but noted the math has to add up. About 40% of the state's revenue in 2020 came from personal income and corporate taxes.

3. Harrington and Jones said they would make themselves accessible to news media tasked with holding them accountable, citing it as an important part of democracy.

  • Sanders noted freedom of the press is important but comes with responsibility: "When [the news media] don't live up to their end of the bargain, it forces some of us to go outside of the box," meaning she's taken her message directly to voters while campaigning.

4. Asked about the trial underway challenging Arkansas' ban on gender-affirming care for transgender children, both Jones and Harrington said — like Gov. Asa Hutchinson — they would not have signed the legislation and that they would listen to science and trust parents of trans youth to make decisions that are best for their families.

  • Sanders said she would've signed the legislation because she sees it as protecting minors, comparing the measure to tobacco and alcohol age limits. She did not say she saw it as a parental rights issue.

What's next: To help voters make informed decisions, Axios NWA will publish a voter guide on Tuesday, two weeks from Election Day.


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