Asa Hutchinson fought the odds for most of his political life. Announcing for president is, in many ways, a return to form for the former governor who won reelection to his last term with 65% of the vote.
"When he started in politics we had one representative in the Legislature. Preston Bynum in the House was our only Republican," said Jonathan Barnett of Siloam Springs, one of Arkansas' two Republican National Committee members and a former state representative who has been active in the party since 1970.
Hutchinson, Arkansas' governor from 2015 to January 2023, will formally announce his campaign Wednesday in the Bentonville town square -- the same place he launched his first statewide race in 1986, against then-U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers, Hutchinson noted in a telephone interview on April 12.
He's entering this race for the same reason he entered every one before, Hutchinson said.
"I believe in a limited role for government, individual responsibility and a strong national defense," he said. "My politics have been the same since day one."
The party he still serves through almost a half-century also needs a course correction, he said.
"We're not going to win if we put up Donald Trump," he said. "We need a candidate with a positive vision for America."
Trump, the former president, lost his reelection bid in 2020's record voter turnout election and is now under criminal indictment in New York. Yet Trump still leads in polls among Republican primary voters.
Giving voters a choice started Hutchinson in his political career and still motivates him, said Susan Hutchinson, his wife of 50 years. Arkansas was a one-party state when they moved to her husband's home Benton County after he finished the University of Arkansas School of Law. Her husband ran for the Quorum Court as a Republican in 1976, the year after he graduated law school, and lost. Then he ran for prosecuting attorney in Benton County in 1978 -- the only contested prosecuting attorney's race anywhere in Arkansas in the general election that year, she recalled and state election records confirm.
"My mom always said there were two things a Christian ought not to do: become a lawyer and get involved in politics," she said. "But he has a servant's heart."
Her husband was able to do both while staying faithful, focused and grounded, she said. But when he ran as a Republican in the Democratic-dominated state in his early campaign, voters wouldn't even shake his hand at campaign appearances, she said.
"When he was torn between being a preacher or a lawyer, I asked him how he could defend someone he knew was guilty," Susan Hutchinson said. "He said you never know if someone is guilty until you have a trial and only then if the system is done properly. God is enthroned in the hall of justice."
He's faithful without being rigid or dogmatic, she said. The two met while both were involved in debate in college, where he impressed her with his ability to consider all aspects of a question, she said. To this day her husband looks at all sides of an issue, she said. "He's not dismissive of anyone," she said. "He does his research."
And he never gives up: "Hutchinsons don't retire. They drop dead," she said.
Both friends and former opponents describe Hutchinson's presidential bid as an odds-defying move.
"You're talking to a guy who was in the room when Bill Clinton said he saw a path to the presidency, and I told him that was the craziest thing I ever heard," said James L. "Skip" Rutherford, dean emeritus of the University of Arkansas' Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock. Clinton, an Arkansas governor at the time, went on to win the presidency in 1992.
As governor, Clinton led an Arkansas Democratic Party even more dominant in state politics than the Republican Party of Arkansas is now -- a dominance Hutchinson repeatedly challenged.
"It can be done. It has been done," Rutherford said about Hutchinson's presidential prospects. "There is a path. I think it's a narrow path, but it's there."
Clinton isn't the sole relevant example, Rutherford said.
"People forget how Mike Huckabee made a good showing when he ran for president."
Like Hutchinson, Huckabee announced his campaign shortly after leaving the governor's office. Huckabee won the 2008 Iowa Republican Caucus against better-funded candidates, then carried six states in the following "Super Tuesday" primaries Feb. 5 of that year.
"He is a very credible general election candidate. It's the primary that's uphill," Rutherford said. Trump appears the odds-on favorite -- for now, Rutherford said.
Barnett, Rutherford, former Gov. Mike Beebe and U.S. Sen. John Boozman all said Hutchinson needs to raise a lot of money soon to survive in the primary. Barnett added Hutchinson needs to take the stage in the first debate between Republican presidential hopefuls, the as-yet unscheduled debate when the Republican National Committee meets next in August in Milwaukee.
"I think they're both right," Hutchinson said when told of Rutherford's and Barnett's comments on raising money and getting into the first debate.
The national committee hasn't announced its standards for qualifying for the debate, but it will likely include a minimum amount of money raised and a minimum number of unique donors giving at least a dollar, Barnett said. The need to make the debate gives Hutchinson and other contenders a tight timeline, he said.
"If you haven't announced by June, you're probably announcing too late," he said.
Hutchinson does well in news interviews with major media outlets, Barnett said. Hutchinson makes good use of the attention he gets as a Trump critic to explain his position on other issues, he said.
Barnett and Beebe agreed with Rutherford the Republican primary seems like the bigger hurdle for Hutchinson than the general election.
"He's a tenacious and fierce competitor" as a candidate and a pragmatic, realistic public official, Beebe said of his former opponent. Beebe, a Democrat, defeated Hutchinson in their first bid for governor in 2006.
As governor, Hutchinson "had the same priorities I had and ran on: education and economic development," Beebe said. Both he and Hutchinson put their emphasis on practical governing rather than divisive social issues, Beebe said.
"If he can get the nomination his chances wouldn't be bad," Beebe said of Hutchinson's presidential prospects.
Rutherford agreed. Hutchinson has experience in all branches and levels of government. "He can say 'I'm the steady, stable one.'"
"The question is: Will the Republicans be ready for the experienced adult in the room?" Rutherford said.
Hutchinson, 72, ran his first race in 1978 in Benton County. He lost in the then-solidly Democratic county. Yet he kept coming, giving the minority party a candidate in races for Congress, attorney general and governor. Hutchinson also served as state party chairman, where his contribution was vital to the party, according to John C. Davis, author of the soon-to-be-published "From Blue to Red: The Rise of the GOP in Arkansas" from the University of Arkansas Press.
"He is the architect of key party initiatives and strategies that positioned the party to eventually seize opportunities and sustain the gains it has captured over the last two decades," says an excerpt from Davis' book. Republicans now hold all the statewide elected offices and super-majorities in both chambers of the Legislature. Arkansas has the largest Republican-only congressional delegation among the 50 states.
Before any of that, Hutchinson ran "in political contests with no real hope to succeed," Davis' book says. Hutchinson recruited Huckabee to run in a 1993 special election for lieutenant governor, leading to Huckabee's later election as governor. Hutchinson also won cases in court on the party's behalf, including one to have the tiny party's primaries publicly financed. He worked to contrast the brands of the two parties to appeal to conservatives with a history of splitting their votes between Republicans for president and Democrats for everything else, according to Davis.
It "is safe to say that no person has played a larger role in the party's success" in Arkansas, Davis' book says.
"I started out without any interest in politics," Hutchinson said in a January 2015 interview as he was assuming the office of governor. "My plans were to be a successful small-town lawyer. Three things got me started. First, there was Ronald Reagan. His conservative values reflected my own and the way he expressed them appealed to me. Second, I could see that the state needed a functioning two-party system. Third, the Democrats at the time required people running for office to take a loyalty oath, pledging to support all Democratic candidates. I couldn't stomach that."
Hutchinson won election to Congress in 1996 and reelection twice before leaving to serve in President George W. Bush's administration. He lost his first race for governor against Beebe, who was then the state's attorney general, in 2006 but tried again in 2014 and won.
Previous Republican governors included Huckabee in 1998, Frank White in 1980 and Winthrop Rockefeller in 1966, but all three of Hutchinson's Republican predecessors were succeeded by Democrats, Hutchinson pointed out.
"I was the first to have a Republican succeed me," Hutchison said, referring to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Huckabee's daughter.
The Arkansas Republican Party's base openly called for repealing the so-called private option plan during Hutchinson's 2014 governor's campaign, Beebe said. The plan passed during Beebe's administration and taps into the federal Affordable Care Act, which critics called Obamacare. Hutchinson realized rural hospitals throughout the state would close and thousands of Arkansans would lose health care coverage if repeal went through, Beebe said.
"When he kept the private option, making some changes -- including the name-- that's when I realized he was going to be realistic," Beebe said.
As governor, Hutchinson prioritized computer science education in state schools, garnering international attention, and cut taxes for lower-income Arkansans. In his second term, Hutchinson gained approval to further cut the state income tax and reorganize state government, sorting 42 state agencies into 15 state departments. He helped pass a voter-approved highway spending bill he proposed, also.
"He's never had an easy road. Never," said Richard Bearden of Little Rock. Bearden served on Hutchinson's campaign staff in the 1986 U.S. Senate race and was Hutchinson's campaign chairman in the 1990 unsuccessful race for attorney general.
"He's no different than the guy he was," Bearden said of Hutchinson. "There were a lot of young people working in those early campaigns and he inspired his staff. He believed he could win and was inspirational to the rest of us."
"He might be wearing better ties," Bearden said when asked if Hutchinson's success changed the candidate in any way.