LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge on Tuesday dropped her bid for governor, clearing former White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders' path to the Republican nomination for the post.
Rutledge, who announced last year she was running for governor, said she would instead seek the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor.
“At this crossroads in our country’s history, now is a time for Christian conservative leaders to unite and fight together against those who wish to destroy the America we know and love," Rutledge said in a statement released by her campaign.
Rutledge endorsed Sanders' bid, saying “she will stand strong against the onslaught of the liberal left’s attack on our home state."
Rutledge was first elected attorney general in 2014 and won reelection in 2018. She badly trailed Sanders in fundraising for governor, with Sanders raising more than $11 million since she launched her bid in January. Rutledge had raised $1.6 million total.
Rutledge had criticized Sanders, who has run primarily on national issues, as not having much accomplishment behind her rhetoric.
“While my opponent talks about the liberal left in Washington, D.C., she has done nothing to effectively combat them in the last several years,” Rutledge told The Associated Press in September.
Rutledge had also run on tax cuts, vowing in July to try and put on next year's ballot a proposal to eliminate the individual income tax.
Despite Rutledge's past criticism, Sanders thanked the attorney general after her exit from the governor's race.
“I want to thank Leslie Rutledge for her leadership," Sanders said in a statement released by her campaign. “I look forward to uniting Arkansans behind my vision to grow our economy and create high-paying jobs, increase access to quality education, and deliver bold, conservative reforms that take our state to the top.”
The two were running to succeed Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who can’t run for reelection due to term limits. Rutledge's exit leaves Sanders as the only announced Republican candidate for governor. Several Democrats are running for the post.
Rutledge joins an already crowded race for lieutenant governor. Former state GOP Chairman Doyle Webb, state Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe, businessman Chris Bequette, Washington County Judge Joseph Wood and state Sen. Jason Rapert are currently seeking the GOP nomination. Kelly Krout, a graduate student and advocate for foster families, is the only Democrat running.
Rutledge had previously dismissed the possibility that she'd switch to the lieutenant governor's race, telling the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in February that “after working a full-time job with a staff of 180 people, I’d be bored with a part-time job and a staff of two."
One of Rutledge's now-rivals was quick to highlight that remark.
“As someone who has offered the attorney general much advice and friendship, I am severely disappointed with her decision to switch to this race; an office she does not respect," Webb said in a statement.
Rapert criticized Rutledge's past comments on Sanders, tweeting that the attorney general “has continually attacked our likely nominee by questioning her leadership and ability at every turn."
The state's current lieutenant governor, Republican Tim Griffin, is seeking the GOP nomination for attorney general.
Griffin dropped out of the governor's race and said he'd instead run for attorney general in February, weeks after Sanders announced her candidacy for governor.
Andrew Demillo, The Associated Press