Former Arkansas governor Hutchinson looks to navigate through division during presidential campaign

Ex-governor’s presidential run reflects optimism, he says

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks during an interview in his office Wednesday, April 19, 2023, in Rogers, Ark.. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks during an interview in his office Wednesday, April 19, 2023, in Rogers, Ark.. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

BENTONVILLE -- To someone walking into the Rogers office of Asa Hutchinson, one of the first things to see is a quote from the former governor printed on a banner by the entrance.

"I'm optimistic about the future of America because together, we can move our nation in the right direction," the banner reads. "An America that is strong and free."

Hutchinson, a Republican who completed his second term as Arkansas' governor in January, ties his optimism to how the United States maneuvered through what he described as "times of struggle," noting periods such as the Great Depression and the Civil Rights Movement.

"We've been divided before, we have struggled before, and we're resilient," he said in an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "It's because we're the greatest democracy in the world, and we have a Constitution that we try to follow. It has tensions, but we always find a way through."

Hutchinson, 72, hopes to relay that message to the voting populace as a presidential candidate. Hutchinson announced his electoral ambitions earlier this month and will officially kick off his campaign today with an event in Bentonville.

Hutchinson's resume includes stints as a U.S. attorney, leader of the state Republican Party, a U.S. House of Representatives member, and an official during the George W. Bush administration. He left the governor's office after eight years as the state's chief executive, during which he led the Natural State through the coronavirus pandemic.

Hutchinson began considering a White House run toward the end of his second term, citing growing disagreements with President Joe Biden, who announced his re-election campaign Tuesday.

To read more about Hutchinson, click here

"America has always produced leaders and supported leaders during tough times and met the challenges ahead. I don't think this year is any exception," Hutchinson said. "People want to have leaders that look to the future and are problem-solving and can make a difference in their lives."

Hutchinson considered other Republicans who could "take on this challenge" and has not been shy in criticizing former President Donald Trump, arguing Trump's support of claims regarding the 2020 presidential election as well as the January 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol are disqualifying conditions for the former president.

"He did not handle it in a way that the best traditions of our democracy expect," Hutchinson said.

After Trump was indicted on criminal charges related to hush money payments, Hutchinson called on the former president to drop out of the contest.

"You look for both a new leader of our party and a leader of our country, and I think my consistent conservatism and optimism about our future and problem-solving capabilities as governor, that's what we need," Hutchinson said.

Trump is the current front-runner in the Republican presidential primary. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis -- who has yet to announce if he is running -- is Trump's closest challenger, albeit far behind Trump in national polls. DeSantis' numbers have stagnated amid his ongoing battle against the Walt Disney Company; the dispute stems from Disney's opposition to a law prohibiting classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy have launched their respective campaigns. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., announced an exploratory committee earlier this month.

Hutchinson recognizes current polling but said he's fine with not being the front-runner given the nine months until the Iowa caucus, the first contest of the 2024 presidential primary season.

"The history of the Iowa caucuses and front-runners is fairly dismal," he said with a laugh. "I say that jokingly, but it's true. I don't think you worry about where you are nine months out. You worry about where you're going and the momentum and building the infrastructure to win a campaign."

Andrew Dowdle, a University of Arkansas professor whose work involves presidential elections, said candidates bet on the Iowa caucus, which emphasizes the importance of individual turnout and participation compared to primary elections.

"They probably don't have to win it, but they do have to do relatively well to probably survive in terms of having electoral viability," Dowdle said.

One presidential candidate who performed well in a past Iowa caucus was Mike Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor won the 2008 caucus in a Republican field that included Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and eventual nominee John McCain.

Dowdle said candidates can be divided into different groups dependent on name recognition. Trump is a top-tier candidate in terms of the public's awareness, while most candidates are unknown to most people at first.

"You can try to get the media's attention relatively early," Dowdle said. "Mike Huckabee did a pretty good job in terms of doing that when he ended up running."

According to Dowdle, Hutchinson could emphasize his differences from Trump in an attempt to win the Republican Party nomination.

"In a sense, there is a niche there for somebody," Dowdle said. "He's arguably the only Trump-critical alternative in the GOP race, and by that, I mean somebody who's willing to publicly criticize President Trump, even if it's fairly politely."

Hutchinson acknowledged erosion of the national Republican brand during recent elections, citing shortcomings in last year's midterms when Republicans barely won the U.S. House of Representatives and failed to take control of the Senate.

"If you want to yield to those who want to take our party back to isolationism or take it back to government solutions, then you've got to fight that battle and you've got to win in the marketplace of ideas," he said. "That's why I'm running in this race; both for the country and for what I see is an adjustment that needs to be made in the party."

The Republican Party of Arkansas will remain neutral during the primary election. In a statement to the Democrat-Gazette, party Chairman Cody Hiland said the organization's position has been to "err on the side of trusting voters to choose our nominees and avoid placing our thumb on the scale."

The Saline County Republican Committee has made its antipathy toward Hutchinson's campaign official. Members approved a "no confidence" status toward Hutchinson during an April 6 vote.

"While we can't speak for those other county committees, we have heard there will be others who join us," Chairman David Gibson told the Democrat-Gazette on Tuesday.

Issues cited by Gibson include Hutchinson's April 2021 veto of legislation banning gender-affirming care for transgender children and Hutchinson's unwillingness to back Trump if the former president secures the party's nomination.

"It's easy to blend in, and today's Republicans, they're not wanting their elected [officials] to blend in," he said. "They're wanting them to stand out and be the salt and the light that we've been called to be."

Three members of Arkansas' congressional delegation sent Hutchinson their best wishes. Sen. John Boozman, R-Rogers, Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, and Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, did not endorse Hutchinson but spoke highly of his record.

"The governor is a friend and was instrumental in helping build the conservative movement in Arkansas going back decades," Boozman said.

"He's brought leadership and character to the table throughout his career, and I admire his desire to continue serving the country and advocating those principles. I know his heart is fully committed to getting America back on the right track and he will take that message to Republicans across the country."

Westerman acknowledged Hutchinson's importance among Arkansas Republicans dating back to when Arkansas was a Democrat-controlled state. He said Hutchinson "has always served with the highest character and integrity and will strengthen" the coming presidential election.

"I have enormous respect for the former governor," Womack said. "He's a family man and a committed conservative with a proven record of success in Arkansas and at the federal level. He will bring a pragmatic voice to the presidential primary that our country should hear. I wish him well."

A spokesperson for Rep. Rick Crawford of Jonesboro said the congressman did not have a comment regarding Hutchinson. Sen. Tom Cotton and Rep. French Hill, both of Little Rock, did not return a request for comment.

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