Arkansas political observers were surprised to read Thursday that Republican Sen. Tom Cotton may become CIA director in a Trump administration shakeup, but names already are circulating for potential appointees to replace him in the Senate.
Among those under discussion is White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, the daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
“I would support Sarah in a New York minute!” former U.S. Rep. Tommy Robinson, an Arkansas Democrat turned Republican, told the Washington Examiner.
The shakeup leading to that possibility would involve Secretary of State Rex Tillerson being replaced by CIA director Mike Pompeo. GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson would fill Cotton's vacant seat ahead of a 2018 special election.
Political scientists Andrew Dowdle of the University of Arkansas and William McLean of Arkansas State University say it's possible Sanders would be named, but caution that they don't view the Huckabee and Hutchinson families as particularly close.
Sanders’ 2010 role as campaign manager for Arkansas’ other U.S. senator, Republican John Boozman, gives her “someone who could potentially advocate for [her] in that regard," McLean said. But with low-key Hutchinson, he said, “her current position has probably hurt her more than it’s helped her in terms of getting the appointment.”
Dowdle, however, could see special circumstances leading to her appointment.
The Arkansas constitution appears to ban appointed senators from seeking re-election, Dowdle said, meaning “we can’t have a Luther Strange situation,” where someone intends to hold on to the office.
“That might end up increasing the chance Sanders is appointed because it ends up striking down so many people,” he said.
Dowdle said “it can’t be fun to be press secretary at this point” and that being an appointed senator would “open the doors for other federal appointments” for Sanders or even cue up a campaign for governor in 2022, when term-limited Hutchinson cannot run.
For Sanders, who became press secretary in July, “there would be some advantages from this,” he said.
Cotton’s predecessor in the Senate, former Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor told the Washington Examiner, however, that he “would be surprised if Sarah Sanders is the choice or if she is interested.”
“In all likelihood, the Cotton vacancy would trigger a Republican scramble here,” Pryor said. He believes the frontrunners for the seat would be U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, U.S. Rep. French Hill, Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, or some trusted Hutchinson ally, with the choice guided by longer-term electoral planning.
Pryor said he believes anyone appointed to the seat would be allowed to run again, pointing to Supreme Court precedent that states cannot impose eligibility requirements — such as term limits — that aren’t specified in the Constitution.
Dowdle agreed the state constitution's restrictions would be found invalid, but said the potential hassle of having to sue in court may be enough to deter would-be officeholders.
State party chairman Doyle Webb declined to comment on possible appointees to Cotton's seat, other than to say, "Our bench is deep."
McLean, meanwhile, said state Lt. Gov. Ken Griffin or Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge might be considered. Dowdle named Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin or Griffin.
Dowdle said one surprising choice would be Hutchinson naming one of his nephews, identical twins Jeremy and Timothy Chad. Their father, Tim Hutchinson, was a one-term U.S. senator who lost re-election to Pryor in 2002.
Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis declined to comment on possible appointees, citing the recency of reporting that Cotton’s seat may become vacant. Sanders did not immediately respond to a request for comment.