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Arkansas lawmaker leaves GOP, saying party has become ‘about one man and a personality’

An Arkansas state lawmaker, who is the nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson and was expected to run for governor next year, said he is leaving the Republican Party.

State Sen. Jim Hendren, in a nine-minute video, cited former President Donald Trump’s incitement of the riot at the Capitol on January 6 as the “last straw.”

“I asked myself, what in the world would I tell my grandchildren when they asked one day what happened, and what did I do about it?” Hendren said in the video he posted to YouTube on Thursday.

His move highlights the perils of the Republican Party’s continuing loyalty to Trump: While he is supported by the vast majority of the party’s base, he has also alienated some conservatives and ignited a ferocious opposition that smashed fundraising and voter turnout records in the 2018 midterms and 2020 election.

“There’s a real danger that the Republican Party is going to be one that you can’t win a primary without being a Trump supporter, and you can’t win a general by being a Trump supporter,” Hendren said in an interview Friday. “What would have happened, then, is we’ve taken a party that was about principle and about conservative government to one that is about one man and a personality. And that is a race that doesn’t end well for the GOP.”

Hendren, 57, is an Arkansas native and former Air Force fighter pilot. He’s been a state lawmaker since 1995 — first in the House, and since 2013 in the Senate, where he served four years as majority leader. His father was also an Arkansas state legislator, and his uncle, Hutchinson, is in his second term as governor.

In the video, Hendren — who said he is now an independent — said his departure from the GOP was years in the making.

He highlighted Trump’s characterization during the 2016 campaign of Mexican immigrants as rapists, his ridiculing of a Gold Star family, his mockery of the late Arizona Sen. John McCain and his “encouragement of the worst voices of racism, nationalism and violence.”

“I watched the former President actively fan the flame of racist rhetoric, make fun of those with disabilities, bully his enemies, and talk about women in ways that would never be tolerated in my home or business,” he said, faulting Republican leaders for failing to intervene.

Hendren tweeted Thursday night, about 12 hours after he’d posted his video leaving the GOP: “I’ve heard from dozens of my former military brothers and sisters. Turns out, like me, insurrections don’t go down well with them either.”

Democrats said Hendren’s decision underscored the GOP’s drift toward radicalism.

“He said what most of us already knew, that today’s Republican Party of Arkansas doesn’t focus on the needs of Arkansans but rather on the divisive rhetoric and issues that divide our country,” Arkansas Democratic Party chairman Michael John Gray said in a statement.

Hendren had already faced backlash from conservatives in Arkansas over his sponsorship of hate crimes legislation. He would have been a long-shot in a Republican gubernatorial primary in which former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the daughter of former Gov. Mike Huckabee, is the overwhelming favorite.

Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin dropped out of the governor’s race earlier this month, saying he will instead run for attorney general. Current Attorney General Leslie Rutledge is also running for governor.

Hendren said Friday he has not decided whether to run for governor as an independent. He said he is launching a new organization called Common Ground Arkansas, which he said is “about me building a place for people who are politically homeless.”

“I have not ruled that out,” Hendren told CNN’s Poppy Harlow on “Erin Burnett OutFront” Friday evening of a run for governor. “But this is about something far greater and far broader than one governor’s race in Arkansas — if I wanted to be governor, I probably wouldn’t be leaving the dominant party in Arkansas. This is about building a home for people who don’t have one now.”

When asked if the Republican Party should split and a new-center right party should emerge, Hendren replied, “That’s going to be a decision that the party has to make for itself.”

This story has been updated with Hendren’s comments on CNN Friday evening.

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