GOP senator faces challenge on Trump credentials

Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) arrives to the Capitol for a vote on Wednesday, July 21, 2021.
Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) arrives to the Capitol for a vote on Wednesday, July 21, 2021.

Correction: A previous version of this story misquoted Bequette. It has since been updated to clarify that he does not believe Jan. 6, 2021 was a violent insurrection.

GOP Sen. John Boozman (Ark.) voted with former President Trump more than 91 percent of the time and snapped up an early 2022 endorsement and a donation from his PAC.

But as Boozman seeks a third term for his reliably red Senate seat, his primary opponents are coming after him by trying to paint themselves, and not the 71-year-old, as the real Trump candidate.

The under-the-radar race has echoes of the broader headaches facing Republicans heading into primaries: anti-establishment challengers trying to claim the former president's mantle, and his voter base, while they face off with traditionally conservative - and sometimes even Trump-endorsed - incumbents.

"I think, obviously, there are people that would like to try to harness the power of Donald Trump, and maybe through issues or sentiment ... they're trying to tie themselves to him. I suspect that's what Jake is doing," said Robert Coon, an Arkansas GOP strategist.

Jake Bequette, a former NFL player, is viewed as the biggest primary challenger for Boozman, who is still the front-runner in the race.

Coon said, "I wouldn't be sounding alarm bells yet, but I would definitely be taking this seriously," adding that Trump's endorsement "signals approval" and that it would be "very, very noticeable" if the former president hadn't given it.

But Bequette, in an interview with The Hill, mirrored the former president's anti-establishment rhetoric, arguing that Arkansas voters are "ready for a change" while trying to cast Boozman, who was first elected to the House in 2000 and the Senate in 2010, as fair weather in his support for Trump.

"There are too many Republicans who only support President Trump when it's convenient for them. You know, Sen. Boozman was against President Trump from the very beginning," Bequette said.

"There are too many Republicans who only stand with President Trump and really the America First movement when it's convenient for them. And I think the people of Arkansas are ready for a leader, someone who's going to stand up and ... lead from the front, not someone who's going to be largely invisible," he added.

Jimmy Harris, the campaign manager for Boozman, who was unavailable for an interview, touted the GOP senator's endorsement from Trump as well as other top Republicans in the state, including Sen. Tom Cotton and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump's former press secretary, who served as Boozman's 2010 campaign manager and will likely be the next governor of Arkansas.

"President Trump - whose agenda he fully supported - as well as Senator Cotton and Arkansas's next Governor, Sarah Sanders, all agree. Senator Boozman has always been a workhorse, not a show pony, and he continues to visit every corner of the state demonstrating his strong, conservative record," Harris said in a statement to The Hill.

Bequette, who turns 33 on Monday, is a newcomer to politics and a self-acknowledged underdog in the race. He played football at the University of Arkansas before playing for the New England Patriots and subsequently joining the Army.

Rhetorically, he's Boozman's opposite.

Boozman sits on committees that are important to his home state, including Appropriations and Agriculture, where he's poised to become chairman if Republicans win back the Senate.

But while his nice-guy, mild-mannered personality has earned friendships on both sides of the aisle, he largely avoids the spotlight on Capitol Hill.

Bequette, meanwhile, is making the rounds on conservative media. He has vowed to subpoena Anthony Fauci, the country's top U.S. infectious diseases expert and one of the right's favorite boogeymen, and touts himself as a "conservative warrior."

Bequette declined to say if he would support Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) if he makes it to the upper chamber, saying that he was focusing on his current race. But he sees himself as fitting in with Republican senators such as Ted Cruz (Texas), Rand Paul (Ky.) Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Josh Hawley (Mo.), firebrands known for causing headaches for GOP leadership, something that is not Boozman's brand.

Hawley and Cruz also helped lead a failed effort to challenge President Biden's 2020 election win on Jan. 6, 2021.

Boozman, like most GOP senators, voted against those efforts. He also voted twice to acquit Trump during the 2020 and 2021 impeachment trials, though he said in a statement after the 2021 vote that Trump "bears some responsibility for what happened" on Jan. 6.

Bequette said he wouldn't have voted to formally certify Biden's election results. He added that he does not believe Jan. 6 was a "violent insurrection," and that "unlike Sen. Bozeman, I'm not going to blame President Trump for the events of that day."

Coon acknowledged that leaning into criticism of Boozman's rhetoric around Jan. 6 "plays well with a certain group" of primary voters but questioned how effective it would be writ large.

"I don't know that that's a kitchen table issue that people in their daily lives are waking up thinking about every day," he said. "They do get a response from a certain percentage of the electorate, but ... I don't feel like that's the majority of Republican primary voters."

Bequette isn't the only challenger in the race trying to take the Trump mantle from Boozman. Gun rights activist Jan Morgan went after both Boozman and Bequette last year over Jan. 6, calling Boozman a "blamer," Bequette a "dodger" and herself a "fighter."

But Bequette has outraised Morgan, with roughly $807,000 raised and more than $411,000 cash on hand compared to her more than $335,600 raised and nearly $60,000 cash on hand. Billionaire Richard Uihlein, founder of Uline shipping company, who has a history of funding anti-establishment candidates and supported groups tied to "Stop the Steal," is giving $1 million to a super PAC aligned with Bequette.

The super PAC has spent $841,000 on TV ad buys so far.

But trying to defeat Boozman - who has a history of winning primary battles and defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln in 2010 at the start of the state's rightward shift - is an uphill battle.

Boozman has a fundraising advantage over both Bequette and Morgan as well as the support of national groups such as the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). As of the end of last year, he had $3.5 million cash on hand.

In his first TV ads of the cycle, which went up earlier this month, Boozman's campaign touted that he was "endorsed by President Trump" while also characterizing him as a nose-to-the-grind workhorse.

Coon, noting Boozman's voting record, questioned how much of a lane there is to run to the right of him in a primary.

"Is there room to Sen. Boozman's right? I think maybe a little bit, but ... traditionally John has really been, you know, very conservative in his voting. I don't feel like there's a whole lot of room there from an actual voting record standpoint. I think there's probably more room there from a rhetoric standpoint," he said.

A Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College poll released earlier this month found that Boozman had a 38 percent approval rating, compared to a 45.6 percent disapproval rating, with 15.5 percent of voters saying they didn't know if they approved or disapproved.

Among GOP voters specifically, Boozman fared better, with 61 percent saying they approve and 41 percent of that coming from GOP voters who "somewhat approve."

Boozman's allies argue there's little room, beyond rhetoric, for another candidate to challenge the GOP senator from the Trump wing of the party. He voted with Trump 91.5 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight, slightly higher than the analysis website predicted given Trump's 2016 margin of error in the state.

Though Boozman doesn't routinely talk about his relationship with the former president, a source close to the Boozman campaign recounted how Boozman and Trump spoke about the impact that the coronavirus was having on farmers and the supply chain.

"I just thought that was telling that John Bozeman, this soft-spoken guy, you know, who does fly under the radar, can call Trump and then Trump goes out, says something about him. And I think since then they've had a really good relationship," the source said. "I think they see him as somebody that will be a strong GOP supporter."

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 GOP senator, said that Republicans have "full confidence" in Boozman.

"I know that he's got an opponent, but everything I hear from down there suggests that he's in very good shape. ... You're always worried about everybody in this kind of political environment, but he's doing everything right and has a strong base of support," Thune said.

Asked about the outside money behind Bequette, Thune added, "I don't know how you can attack Boozman on the record. ... He's a conservative in every sense of the word."

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the chairman of the NRSC, also brushed off criticisms from Boozman's opponents over his level of support for Trump by noting the former president's endorsement.

"Boozman's working hard. He's got a good background," Scott told The Hill. "He's well thought of. He's going to be fine."

Updated at 5:50 p.m.