WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s sway over the Republican Party is on display in this year’s U.S. Senate race as John Boozman leans on the former president’s endorsement.
The 71-year-old senator is the only candidate in the race with Trump’s endorsement. But Boozman’s primary opponents are casting doubt on his conservative credentials, aiming to paint the two-term senator as a career politician who has not been loyal to the former president.
The approval of Trump is a running theme in Boozman’s campaign messaging: The endorsement has been highlighted on social media, plastered near the bottom of fundraising emails and featured in campaign advertisements.
“He’s the only candidate with a conservative track record for Arkansas families. That’s why Boozman is the only candidate endorsed by President Trump,” says one campaign advertisement.
The strategy reflects the staying power of Trump’s political brand in Arkansas and across the nation, despite his 2020 presidential election loss and his impeachment over allegations of inciting insurrection. Fifty-seven senators voted in favor of convicting Trump, 10 short of the number required.
Boozman, who backed Trump’s reelection bid but opposed efforts to overturn certified election results, is sticking with Trump.
Earlier this year, Trump suggested that he might pardon people who took part in the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, if he becomes president again, and he praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as “savvy” in the lead-up to the invasion of Ukraine.
Boozman, who days after the riot opposed considering pardons under any circumstance, said Trump’s comments have not made him think about moving away from the former president.
“We would be a heck of a lot better off if we had a President Trump right now versus a President Biden,” he said in an interview Friday.
Arkansans will head to the polls Monday for the start of early voting. The primary election will take place on May 24.
The senator is facing off against Jake Bequette, a veteran and former Arkansas Razorback; Jan Morgan, a gun-range owner; and Heath Loftis, a pastor of a church in Stuttgart.
A candidate must receive 50% of the tally plus one vote to win outright in a primary race. If no one reaches that threshold, then the two candidates with the most votes move on to a runoff election.
A recent poll of 802 likely GOP primary voters found that Boozman came away with 45% of the vote, whereas Bequette came in with 19% and Morgan with 16.5%. The poll from Talk Business & Politics and Hendrix College holds a margin of error of 4.3%. It was conducted on Monday.
THE SENATOR AND TRUMP
Boozman is the senior member of the state’s congressional delegation and has emphasized issues with direct ties to Arkansas, such as agriculture and veterans affairs.
The Rogers Republican serves as the top GOP lawmaker on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. He’s also worked across the aisle on the Agriculture Committee in order to advance legislation backed by Arkansas farmers.
And as a leader of the bipartisan Hunger Caucus, he backed efforts to ease food insecurity and increase poor children’s access to meals.
“We can disagree without being disagreeable,” Boozman has repeatedly said.
Boozman’s embrace of the Trump endorsement is not surprising considering the former president handily won Arkansas in the past two presidential elections, said Janine Parry, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. But there are differences in personality between Trump and the soft-speaking Boozman, she said.
“I just can’t think of two Republicans who are more different in their personal style. Their voting records aren’t that different,” she said. “It’s not that Boozman has been much of a centrist politically, but he just tries not to be rude.”
The senator voted in line with Trump’s positions 91.5% of the time, according to a tally from FiveThirtyEight, a data-driven news and analysis website.
Boozman is also a supporter of one of Trump’s signature policies: building a wall along the nation’s southern border. The senator regularly criticizes high consumer prices and pushed back against a coronavirus vaccination requirement that the Biden administration directed at larger companies.
Republican critics of Boozman say he’s not conservative enough, and Bequette has called him a RINO, an acronym meaning Republican In Name Only.
Bequette, who is also a former NFL player for the New England Patriots, said Boozman only sides with Trump when he can benefit.
“He’s pretending to be a Trump supporter. And the more that the people of Arkansas are hearing about his record and learning about me, they know that I’m the America-first candidate in this race,” Bequette said. “And I think that’s why we’re gonna force this runoff and win the runoff.”
Boozman characterized that criticism as “desperate and untrue,” pointing to his voting record of siding closely with Trump.
“The reason that I did support him in this way was we did great things,” Boozman said. “We secured the border. We had the best economy in 50 years. And working together, building the military kept us safe.”
A Boozman campaign advertisement calls the senator a “workhorse” and points to Bequette as a “show pony.” Another labels the challenger as “Fake Jake Bequette.”
U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton and Republican gubernatorial candidate Sarah Huckabee Sanders, two top GOP figures in the state with ties to Trump, have endorsed the incumbent as well.
But those endorsements have not stopped the attacks against Boozman. Morgan, the gun-range owner, points to Boozman’s decision not to reject 2020 presidential election results.
“He betrayed the people of Arkansas, and he threw our president under the bus,” she said during an interview with Republican operative Roger Stone that was posted on her Facebook page. “People in Arkansas still have not forgotten that.”
Morgan’s campaign did not make her available for an interview.
Last year, Boozman issued a statement saying that Trump bore “some responsibility” for the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, but the senator voted to acquit Trump during the impeachment push.
Weeks after the vote, Trump endorsed Boozman’s reelection bid.
Loftis, the pastor running for U.S. Senate, said he’s an anti-establishment candidate. The pastor said he is pro-family and supports the Second Amendment. He also described himself as an abortion abolitionist.
“I’m the only candidate that’s trying to highlight the pro-abolitionist movement,” he said.
Boozman has a financial advantage over his competition, according to the campaigns’ latest filings with the Federal Election Commission.
His campaign reported bringing in more than $1.1 million in this year’s first quarter and spending more than $2.1 million during that same period, bringing its cash-on-hand total to more than $2.5 million at the end of March.
Bequette’s campaign committee reported bringing in $343,956 over the first three months of this year. The campaign committee said it spent $199,791 during that time frame and had $555,878 in its coffers at the end of March.
Bequette has also received support from the Arkansas Patriots Fund, a super PAC supported by an out-of-state political donor, Dick Uihlein.
Uihlein, of the packaging supply company Uline, funneled $1 million into the group last year, according to available election commission files.
Morgan’s campaign reported a first-quarter haul of $215,824 and held a cash-on-hand total of $54,751 at the end of March.
An election commission filing shows Loftis’ campaign with $1,560 on hand at the end of March. The filing shows Loftis contributed more than $20,000 to his own campaign earlier this year.
Republican candidates for U.S. Senate
Occupation: Former optometrist and small business owner
Education: University of Arkansas, Fayetteville (1972); Southern College of Optometry, Memphis (1977)
Public Service Experience: School Board Member, Rogers School District (1994-2001); Member of Congress, AR-3 (2001-2010); U.S. Senator (2011-present)
Residence: Little Rock
Occupation: Candidate for United States Senate
Education: University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
Public Service Experience: Army veteran who graduated from U.S. Army Ranger School and deployed to Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division
Occupation: Pastor of Park Avenue Missionary Baptist Church in Stuttgart
Education: B.S. Ag Business, Arkansas State University; Master of Divinity, Central Arkansas Baptist Bible Institute; Doctor of Divinity, Slidell Baptist Seminary
Public Service Experience: Served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, 2011-2017
Residence: Hot Springs
Occupation: NRA, USCCA and Arkansas State Police Certified Firearms instructor
Education: East Texas State University, major broadcast journalism, minor political science
Public Service Experience: Citizens for Trump, National Spokesperson seven years; Executive Board Arkansas State Baptist Convention