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Leading Arkansas Republican gives up on the GOP

At first blush, Arkansas state Sen. Jim Hendren's Republican pedigree is quite impressive. So why did he leave the GOP anyway?
Frank Thorp / NBC News

At first blush, Arkansas state Sen. Jim Hendren's Republican pedigree is quite impressive. Hendren spent four years helping lead the state House GOP caucus, and then four more years helping lead the state Senate GOP caucus. He's also the son and nephew of some of his home state's most prominent Republican officials.

Hendren doesn't exactly fit the profile of a lawmaker prepared to give up on the Republican Party altogether. But as the Associated Press reported yesterday, that's exactly what the Arkansan has done.

Hendren, the nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, had been more willing than other Republican figures in the state to criticize Trump. In a nine-minute video announcing his decision, he cited Trump's insults about immigrants, women, and John McCain, as well as his false attacks on the election's legitimacy leading up to the Jan. 6 riot. "For me, that day was the final straw," Hendren said. "I asked myself, what in the world would I tell my grandchildren when they ask one day, what happened and what did I do about it?"

Some political context is probably in order. Hendren has gubernatorial ambitions, and his GOP critics were quick to argue yesterday that his decision to become an independent was about electoral expediency: the Republican Party's 2022 gubernatorial primary is already crowded, the argument goes, so perhaps he's leaving the GOP to circumvent the field and advance his statewide plans.

I'll leave it to Hendren to defend his motivations, but in the broader context, his reasons are less relevant than his decision: this longtime elected Republican official no longer wants to be associated with a Trumpified GOP.

He's not alone: the New York Times recently published an analysis of voting records and "found that nearly 140,000 Republicans had quit the party in 25 states that had readily available data (19 states do not have registration by party). Voting experts said the data indicated a stronger-than-usual flight from a political party after a presidential election, as well as the potential start of a damaging period for G.O.P. registrations as voters recoil from the Capitol violence and its fallout."

This came on the heels of then-Rep. Paul Mitchell of Michigan also abandoning the Republican Party. Three weeks later, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska conceded, "If the Republican Party has become nothing more than the party of Trump, I sincerely question whether this is the party for me."

This week, a national Quinnipiac poll found that roughly a fifth of GOP voters do not want Donald Trump to maintain a leadership role in the party, and about a fourth of the party's voters blame the former president for the deadly insurrectionist attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6.

What happens to Republican politics if many of those voters, including folks like Arkansas' Jim Hendren, start to drift away from the GOP's shrinking tent?