As a presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee made a name for himself as the regular Joe on the debate stage, a threadbare underdog who couldn’t afford his opponents’ Madison Avenue-style commercials, plush hotels and chartered planes. In his campaign memoir, Huckabee proclaimed that he “kept in touch” with ordinary people while eating food-court fare and waiting for long-delayed commercial flights as “other candidates were stepping onto their Gulfstream jets.”
These days, the former Arkansas governor is living — and flying — far more comfortably.
Now a Fox News commentator and highly paid public speaker, Huckabee has in just a few years racked up at least $253,000 in private air travel bills on the way to political events, according to a POLITICO review of federal and state campaign finance records.
As he continues to toy publicly with the possibility of a second presidential campaign in 2016, Huckabee has cut a costly path through the nation’s political battlegrounds, incurring significant costs to Republican candidates and groups in at least nine states, among them the Iowa Republican Party and Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s infamous 2012 campaign. It’s a penchant for aerial luxury that could present a jarring contrast to Huckabee’s homespun shtick should he decide to be a candidate in the future.
While wealthy and famous politicians often fly in style, Huckabee’s political travel is lavish by any standard. He appears to rely on private flights far more frequently than his potential rivals in the 2016 field. And if fans are often happy to cover the cost, Huckabee’s insistence on chartered planes tends to set him apart from a field of competitors scrambling to amass chits from early-state power brokers.
Former Iowa GOP Chairman A.J. Spiker, whose party spent $15,944 on a Huckabee flight in February 2013, said that “may have been the only time” the Iowa Republican Party chartered a plane to bring in a politician to the pivotal presidential state. It was for a Celebrate Life event at the Point of Grace Church in Waukee, Spiker recalled.
“It was a private flight. He had a recording in New York, and I think [that was] the only way we could get him here,” Spiker said.
North Carolina attorney Woody White, whose unsuccessful bid for a GOP congressional nomination Huckabee endorsed this year, described the former Arkansas governor as a gracious surrogate campaigner with a staff that is fiercely protective of the boss’s time. White said Huckabee used a private flight for the campaign trip but traveled without an entourage and repeatedly expressed appreciation for the House candidate’s extensive preparation.
“We had drivers and we had a convoy and we mapped it out days in advance at the time, because we were going through a couple of high-traffic areas,” said White, a former Huckabee 2008 volunteer who sought out Huckabee’s support by calling the former presidential candidate’s cellphone. “When we told them the preliminary schedule, we had two events and [Huckabee’s staff] said, ‘We can’t do that, we don’t have time for that.’ But we ultimately did two events.”
White said he asked Huckabee about 2016 during their drive together: “I don’t feel comfortable sharing all of that, but I’ll say … he’s seriously considering it.”
Huckabee’s aides describe his reliance on chartered air travel as a consequence of his intense personal schedule. He travels frequently between New York City, where he records his Fox News show, and the Florida Panhandle, where he has built a 10,900-square-foot beachfront home valued in county records at $3.2 million. According to spokesman Sylvester Smith, Huckabee saves money by purchasing “hours on a plane each year at rates that are far less expensive” than typical private air travel.
Huckabee declined to be interviewed for this story. In an email, his spokesman said Huckabee remains closely in touch with regular people despite his high-end flight habits.
“If you knew how much time he’s on a commercial flight, you would know he’s flying far more now commercially than even in 2008,” the Huck PAC official said. “About 300,000 commercial miles last year; he does his own grocery shopping; works in the parking lot on Sundays at his church, parking cars and assisting people from the parking lot to the church; and spends a lot of time with people at the events he does.”
Regarding Huckabee’s political travel, Smith emphasized: “He wants to get out and help as many candidates as he can. Sometimes that means a travel schedule that requires he visit as many as four states in one day. There is simply no way you can travel via commercial airlines on a day like that.”
Campaigns and political committees have paid the cost of Huckabee’s travel by cutting checks to one of two private companies linked to the politician-turned-TV-commentator: Blue Diamond Travel, a business registered at Huckabee’s Florida address, or the now-defunct MDH Group, an Arkansas entity named for the former governor’s initials.
On 14 occasions, Huckabee’s political action committee has also directly paid for private air travel expenses, reporting $30,000 in disbursements to MDH Group for charter travel to “PAC events” and a dozen additional outlays to chartered air travel companies.