Mike Huckabee may lose a significant chuck of his once-loyal evangelical base in 2016 if he chooses to run again. His complicated history with Common Core could prove to be the biggest reason why.
A lot has changed since the former Arkansas governor last ran for president in 2008. Considered the conservative alternative to John McCain and Mitt Romney at the time, Huckabee enjoyed early success in the Republican primaries that year, winning the Iowa caucuses and a handful of primaries in his native South. He parlayed those victories into a popular weekly Fox News show, ensuring his continued public prominence as a conservative voice. While Huckabee — who announced over the weekend that he would leave the network to explore another potential run for the White House — hopes to broaden his appeal beyond the strong base of Evangelical voters who supported his last run, part of that base is threatening to desert him over disagreements on a number of suddenly contentious issues, including Common Core.
“It’s definitely problematic,” says Shane Vander Hart, the editor of the popular Iowa political blog Caffeinated Thoughts and a vocal critic of Common Core, who supported Huckabee in 2008. “It’s going to play the role of a wedge issue with Republicans; Common Core has a greater ability to hamstring a candidate in a caucus election.”
Common Core is expected to play an outsize role with GOP caucus and primary voters because, as Vander Hart explains, “there won’t be too much daylight” between candidates on such typical Republican concerns as gun rights and abortion. As a result, issues such as Common Core, spending, foreign policy, and crime are likely to play more decisive roles in the 2016 primaries, and Huckabee increasingly finds himself at odds with where the conservative electorate stands.
Huckabee has long garnered criticism from certain factions of the Republican base for his perceived heresies on spending, foreign policy, and crime. While he has retained much of his strength among Evangelical and values voters through his continued commitment to social issues — including threatening to leave the GOP if the party doesn’t continue to stand against same-sex marriage — the grass-roots base is still skeptical of Huckabee’s conservative bona fides. For example, he presided over tax increases when he was governor of Arkansas — a fact that catalyzed attacks from groups such as the Club for Growth PAC when he first ran for president. And the emerging libertarian-leaning bloc searching for a more restrained foreign policy will also be hard-pressed to back a more hawkish Huckabee. Meanwhile, his judgment on crime-related issues has also come into question owing to his abnormally high number of pardons as governor.
But the rising concern over Common Core is one challenge Huckabee will have to face that he didn’t have to worry about in 2008. While never an outright champion of Common Core, Huckabee has publicly offered support for the proposal in the past. He has praised the standards for having been developed by governors and state education officials. In 2013, he sent a letter to Oklahoma state lawmakers ahead of a vote that would dump Common Core, encouraging them “to resist any attempt to delay implementation” of the standards. And last year, the Washington Post reported that Huckabee urged an organization that helped develop the standards to “rebrand” Common Core, because the name had become “toxic.”
But Huckabee has since not taken kindly to claims that he’s a proponent of Common Core, calling his comments “misconstrued.” In December 2013, he devoted the entire opening monologue of his Fox News show to outlining his concerns about “what Common Core has become,” and encouraging activists on both sides of the issue to move past Common Core itself, claiming that the standards had become too divisive. Instead, he argued for a renewed, broader effort to improve education.
Huckabee’s efforts to thread the needle on education policy have been met with mixed reactions from his past Iowa supporters, says Vander Hart. While some are satisfied with his explanations and eager to rally around him once again, for others Huckabee “is still in the doghouse” on Common Core and will need to provide a clearer answer on what once attracted him to the program.
Most alarmingly of all for Huckabee, some activists in another crucial early-primary state have already closed the door on him. “Someone like Huckabee shouldn’t even bother,” says Jane Aitken, spokeswoman for the New Hampshire Tea Party Coalition. “People like Huckabee are so far removed that they should shut up about [Common Core].”
His wavering on Common Core signifies that he’s not in line with voters, she adds.
While the political landscape no longer looks the same as it did when Huckabee first ran almost eight years ago, he has the advantage of familiarity with conservatives who remember his previous run and watch his Fox News show. Common Core will prove to be one of Huckabee’s earliest hurdles: If he can persuade primary voters that he’s on their side of the issue, he could both stabilize his base and add to it. If not, Huckabee may learn that high viewership doesn’t translate into votes.
— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.