LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—Less than one month into her first term as Arkansas governor, Sarah Sanders was tapped to deliver the Republican response to President Joe Biden's State of the Union, a speaking slot typically granted to rising stars in the party with the intent to elevate them onto the national stage. But stepping onto the national stage doesn't appear to be Sanders's goal—at least for now.
In her address, she used Arkansas as the example of what Republicans are doing across the country. "Here in Arkansas and across America, Republicans are working to end the policy of trapping kids in failing schools and sentencing them to a lifetime of poverty," Sanders said. "We will educate, not indoctrinate our kids, and put students on a path to success."
In an hour-long interview, the former White House press secretary dodged questions about the 2024 election, diverting the conversation back to what she's doing in Arkansas.
She already has substantive accomplishments to point to. This past Tuesday, exactly one month after her State of the Union response, the state legislature passed Sanders's signature legislation, an ambitious overhaul of Arkansas schools, and she has already signed it into law. Corey DeAngelis, a leading advocate for school choice, said Arkansas is now the "gold standard for educational freedom."
The bill is a kitchen-sink approach to education reform—in addition to establishing universal school choice, it yanks obscene sexual materials and critical race theory from classrooms, sets stringent new learning standards, and raises the base teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000.
"This is what bold conservative education legislation looks like," Sanders said from the governor's office, where she monitored the debate on the bill taking place on the other side of the Capitol.
And Sanders says Arkansas as a whole can be the "blueprint" for what conservative states could do.
Sanders joins a crowd of superstar Republican governors making headway by focusing on schools, and armed with a legislature of staunch conservatives, she's charging ahead of other states. Florida's Ron DeSantis is still fighting to get the sorts of reforms passed by Arkansas in Sanders's first few weeks over hurdles in his legislature—his universal school choice bill, for example, faces even some Republican opposition. Sanders came out of her long campaign in Arkansas eager to establish herself as the "Education Governor" and thus far is doing just that.
Sanders's growing profile has also made her a target of Democratic activists and politicians. Washington Post columnists are writing hit pieces questioning why anyone would move to Arkansas: "Good luck recruiting Californians for Arkansas, Sarah Sanders," wrote Philip Bump. Shortly after Sanders's national address, California Democratic governor Gavin Newsom took aim at Arkansas's crime rate and last week was taking shots on Twitter about local Arkansas pieces of legislation.
Sanders acknowledges that she's drawing more scrutiny to her state, but she doesn't think that's a bad thing. "We outkick our coverage, frankly, in a lot of places," she said.
"When it comes to politicians on the national stage for a small state, we have some pretty big names out there," the governor said. "I'm sure you'll find people that will disagree, but my opinion is that it's a good thing for our state, and I plan on using that platform to better us."
Sanders says the critics are unavoidable. "I try to tune it out and stay focused on the objectives in front of us. There are people who wouldn't care what's in the bill, they're gonna hate it simply because I'm associated with it. They don't want to see me be successful. Certainly that's disappointing, but not surprising, and it's not gonna slow us down from doing things that we feel like are the right thing to do."
Sanders sharpened her ability to drown out the critics as White House press secretary. Not only was Sanders the longest-serving Trump administration press secretary—she was the only person to hold the job for more than a year—she was also the most successful, taking over as the daily briefing became a media feeding frenzy and adding a semblance of order to the chaos. She remains beloved by staff, some of whom followed her to Arkansas, and her former boss, to whom she still talks regularly.
Though Sanders is taking advantage of lessons learned at the White House, former colleagues say she's also developed the ability to talk fluently about policy.
"We used to tell her, you need to get more detail," said a former White House colleague. "Now the opposite is the case. She's gone from somebody who was laser-focused on communications with a thin understanding of the policy to somebody who is a policy expert. It's impressive to me."
It's not the first transformation of her career, Sanders says. When she first joined the Donald Trump campaign, she never foresaw that she'd become the lead spokeswoman for Trump's administration.
"I was much more on the strategy and political operation side, and really didn't see myself as a front person or the public-facing individual," she explained.
Sanders joined the Trump campaign in 2016 to do coalition-building in the South, but after a few TV appearances, Trump called her to say he wanted to see her on television every day. And at the White House, after Sanders filled in for then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer while serving as his deputy, Trump tapped her to fill the job.
Her rise to the Arkansas governorship is a different story. Sanders announced her run in January 2021 and, as the prohibitive favorite from the outset, had two years to prepare for the job. It's during that time that she decided she wanted to be the "Education Governor"—she not only became an expert on the issue but also gained confidence that she had to make it her trademark legislation.
"I went to all 75 counties," Sanders said. "Everywhere I went as I traveled on the campaign for two years, every community wants their kids to do better. If we don't have a good education system in place, then we are not setting our kids up for success."
On the ground in Arkansas, Republicans say Sanders has brought a "new energy" to the legislature. "The whole atmosphere and mood of everything is different," said Bart Hester, who leads the state's upper chamber. "It's such a fun energy, an exciting and new energy. It's fun to come in everyday."
Hester says the onslaught of opposition from teachers' unions against the education bill was no match for Sanders.
"We have a governor now where members are more scared of her than they are their superintendents or the teacher union—we've never experienced that," Hester said. "They don't want to disappoint her—they know that she's super popular, they don't want to be the guy that was against their number-one priority."
Sanders scoffs at suggestions that her education plan was a "copycat" of legislation championed by DeSantis, another high-profile Republican governor. "Hard to copy when ours is much bigger and goes much further," Sanders said. But she has nothing negative to say about her Republican counterpart in Florida, and says there's a "great sense of camaraderie and willingness to share best practices" between her and DeSantis, who has emerged as Trump's chief competition in the Republican Party.
Sanders is yet to weigh in on who the Republican presidential nominee should be in 2024—her "focus is solely on Arkansas," she says, in the same way every ambitious and upwardly mobile politician does. And Trump, her former boss, reportedly called Sanders in recent weeks to ask for her endorsement, which still hasn't come.
But she also said she "maintains a great relationship" with Trump, and left the door open for an endorsement in the future.
"When the time comes, maybe, but right now, I don't want to do anything that takes away from the huge agenda list that we have to get done here in Arkansas," Sanders said. "I don't intend on slowing down on that front at any point soon. And so I don't want to do anything that takes away, not just my attention, but also the attention of what we're accomplishing."
A former White House colleague who remains close to Sanders doesn’t expect her 2024 neutrality to change any time soon. "Trump's not her boss anymore," the former colleague said. "Her boss is the people of Arkansas, and that's where I assume her priorities will lie."
Republicans in the state appreciate her focus on Arkansas and recognize she's putting the work they're doing in the Capitol first. "Everyone wants a minute with her—she can be Sarah the national celebrity, or Sarah the governor, and she only has so many minutes in a day," Hester said. "She is spending those minutes as Sarah the governor."
Republican state senator Matt McKee says Sanders has the whole legislature bullish on Arkansas.
"I know Florida's been at the forefront, Texas has done things, but Arkansas can be the place," McKee said.
Sanders says her appreciation for Arkansas has grown since moving her family back to her home state. After traveling to each county for her campaign, she has enhanced her ability to sell the state to visitors. The governor boasts that she can point to the best place to eat in any Arkansas town—this reporter was sent to CJ's Butcher Boy Burgers in Russellville.
When it comes to dining, things are going more smoothly for Sanders in Arkansas. Thus far, she says she hasn't been denied service, as she was in 2019 at the Red Hen restaurant in Virginia.
"You know, knock on wood, I have not been asked to leave any restaurant so far," Sanders said. "It's amazing to be home."