Mike Huckabee Throws His Hat into the Ring

Will the warmth and wit of this conservative populist win over the base?

By Rachel Alexander Published on May 5, 2015

Ending months of speculation, Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and a Baptist minister, formally announced his candidacy for president on Tuesday, joining a quickly growing field of GOP candidates. With his entry, the Republican field is shaping up to be the year of the Christian conservative presidential candidate — perhaps reflecting a backlash against the Obama years, which many have perceived as hostile to conservative Christianity. He said in his announcement from his hometown of Hope, Arkansas, “You know, it was eight years ago that a young, untested, inexperienced and virtually unknown freshman senator made a great speech about hope and change. But eight years later, our debts have more than doubled, America’s leadership in the world has completely evaporated, and the country is more polarized than ever.” His campaign theme is emerging as “From hope to higher ground.”

The Washington Post describes him as arguably “the most underrated candidate in the race.” Unlike most of the other candidates, Huckabee has experience running for president. He won the Iowa Caucuses in 2008 and obtained valuable experience in the primary debates. Becoming the governor of Arkansas shortly after Bill Clinton, he knows how to deal with the Clinton machine and take on Hillary. The Post notes that he is the only Southern populist in the race, and is not seen as a Washington insider, since he has never worked in D.C.

Huckabee ran strongly but unsuccessfully for president in 2008, and did not run in 2012, instead keeping busy with his TV, radio shows and books. He dropped his radio show at the end of 2013, and his FOX News TV show exactly a year later, indications he was contemplating a presidential run.

A PAC supporting Huckabee released a video Friday recounting his success as governor of Arkansas despite Democratic control over both houses in the legislature and following Bill Clinton’s popular tenure. Huckabee, in other words, has a track record of overcoming partisan gridlock.

Much of Huckabee’s broad appeal lies in his conservative populism. “I’m not a Republican because I’m rich,” he said in his pre-announcement video. “I’m a Republican because I didn’t want to wait the rest of my life for the government to rescue me.”

Huckabee is coming out swinging against the left with statements like, “Instead of focusing on the minimum wage, I’m going to focus on solutions to help every American earn his or her maximum wage.” He also speaks explicitly of Islamic terrorism, “I’ll keep all the options on the table, in order to defeat the evil forces of radical Islam.”

Huckabee’s record on social issues is solid. Huckabee and Rick Santorum are the only potential presidential candidates who received an A+ grade from The Pulse 2016 on how they handled the religious freedom controversy in Indiana in March. Huckabee called out President Obama, Hillary Clinton and corporations for their response to the issue.

He graduated magna cum laude from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas, completing his bachelor’s degree in religion in two-and-a-half years. He started seminary, but left at age 21 to work in Christian broadcasting for James Robison, founder of The Stream.

Huckabee remained with Robison for four years and in 1980 helped put on a National Affairs Briefing with Ronald Reagan and Robison jointly addressing religious leaders. Reagan, who brought together a coalition within the GOP of religious conservatives and other groups, told the crowd, “I know you can’t endorse me, but … I want you to know I endorse you.” Many have regarded the event as a crucial moment in Reagan’s successful effort to connect with Southern evangelicals.

Huckabee continued in Christian ministry as a pastor after his tenure with Robison, starting local Christian TV stations. He worked to heal the racial divide in Arkansas, successfully convincing the all-white Immanuel Baptist Church to accept black members in the mid-1980s.

In a recent correspondence with Robison, Huckabee wrote, “I wouldn’t be poised to launch this effort apart from your investment in my life!”

Robison observed of his time with Huckabee, “His convictions shape his character and his character will shape his policies. His whole life has been shaped by moral absolutes.”

In other correspondence, Huckabee reiterated his strong belief in the moral foundation of America. “America can only be explained by the Providence of God,” he said. “Apart from the prayers of the early founders and their belief that liberty was a right inherited from heaven itself, the thought of challenging and declaring independence would have been a fool’s errand.  But as we’ve forsaken our heritage, our hopes have dwindled.  Tuesday, I will be sharing what I plan to do to as one American not ready to give up on this great Republic.”

The Fiscal Conservative Debate

He transitioned into politics in the 1990s, becoming Lieutenant Governor of Arkansas prior to becoming Governor. In the PAC’s pre-announcement video, he describes his tenure this way: “As governor of Arkansas, I cut taxes and welfare, balanced the budget every year for ten years, and raised average family income by 5 percent.”

Despite this record, the low-tax promoting Club for Growth has argued that Huckabee wasn’t thrifty enough during his tenure as governor, raising taxes in several instances and allowing state revenues to mushroom. The Huckabee campaign has responded by pointing to the state’s robust economic growth during that period, growth that generated much of the additional tax revenue.

The campaign further notes that Governor Huckabee also cut taxes close to 100 times and cites a Dick Morris essay from 2007 noting, “In Arkansas, the income tax when he took office was 1 percent for the poorest taxpayers and 7 percent for the richest, exactly where it stood when he left the statehouse 11 years later.”

The debate over his fiscal record raises a larger issue for the Huckabee campaign. Unlike the freshman senators he will be running against, Huckabee, a two-term Arkansas governor, has a long record of executive leadership for critics to pick apart.

Huckabee had the challenge of pursuing a conservative agenda in Arkansas while having to work with a Democratic legislature. Will the compromises he forged be viewed as go-along-to-get-along big government politics as usual, or as savvy executive leadership getting half a loaf for conservative principles instead of none at all?

It’s also worth noting that at the beginning of his tenure, Huckabee faced a state infrastructure, including a road system, that even many fiscal conservatives deemed relatively primitive and in need of significant public investment. As the Arkansas economy flourished under his tenure, are he and the Arkansas legislature to be faulted for increasing state spending to modernize that infrastructure?

If his candidacy gains traction, such questions likely will find their way to the center of a debate about his small government bona fides.

Is Huckabee the Dark Horse Candidate?

Some see Huckabee as a second-tier candidate, lacking a strong organization in the early primary states and a firm commitment to fundraising. He is averaging sixth in primary polling, behind Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz; but is ahead of Dr. Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie and others. However, polls are volatile. In February through April of last year, he was ahead of all the other potential candidates.

Huckabee once backed Common Core, which could hurt him with the conservative base, but he no longer does, saying it has ceased to have local control and has “morphed into a frankenstandard that nobody, including me, can support.”

Huckabee is the author of several best-selling books and an accomplished bass guitar player, known for jamming on his TV show with his musical guests. Diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes while governor, he lost weight through a rigorous diet and exercise and wrote a book about it, Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork.

Even his critics recognize his warmth and wit. Having run his own TV and radio show for years, he’s developed a folksy charisma that most of the other candidates cannot match. An abstainer from alcohol and cigarettes, he’s known for statements like, “I drink a different kind of Jesus juice.” He’s developed a following who have gained a trust in him over the years, particularly Southern evangelicals. Conservatives who are still smarting from the 2008 presidential primary, feeling the election was handed unfairly to John McCain, may feel it’s Huckabee’s time.

There are so many candidates in the race that appeal to Christian conservatives that Huckabee will not have a lock on that coveted base. But he does seem to have an edge over them in the early state of Iowa, which he won in the 2008 Republican presidential contest.

Huckabee told Robison on Sunday that he would like America to pray for him or whatever candidate is found to bring what is best for freedom in America and our future.

 

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