Absence from debate adds to challenges for Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s presidential campaign

Ex-governor vows to remain in ’24 race for the presidency

Republican presidential candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition's fall banquet, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Bryon Houlgrave)
Republican presidential candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition's fall banquet, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Bryon Houlgrave)

WASHINGTON -- When the second Republican presidential debate begins this evening, one candidate who participated in the first event will be absent from the stage: former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

The Republican National Committee on Monday confirmed that Hutchinson did not meet the qualifications to take part in the debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

The seven other candidates in the first debate met the requirements. Former President Donald Trump -- the frontrunner for the Republican nomination who skipped the first debate -- is opting to spend time in Michigan.

Fox Business and Univision will provide live coverage of the two-hour debate beginning at 8 p.m. Central.

The Republican National Committee required candidates to reach 3% in two national polls or 3% in a national poll and two surveys involving early primary states. Candidates needed at least 50,000 unique donors with 200 contributors from 20 states or territories.

Hutchinson successfully qualified for the first debate, on Aug. 23 in Milwaukee, in the days leading up it, but the White House hopefuls faced lower thresholds for that event.

After the RNC's announcement, the former governor issued a statement affirming his commitment to running for higher office, noting his efforts to persuade voters in the early primary states.

"I understand that the RNC and the media are trying to reduce the number of candidates, but I measure success based on the response I receive in early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire," he said.

The Hutchinson campaign did not make the former governor or a representative available for an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Tuesday after a request.

Andrew Dowdle, a University of Arkansas professor whose work focuses on the presidency and elections, said Hutchinson's failure to make the debate hinders his chances of winning the nomination.

"It's symptomatic of the fact that Gov. Hutchinson hasn't had a lot of luck in terms of early opinion polls or raising significant amounts of money," Dowdle said.

Hutchinson and other candidates needed to reach at least 1% from certain polls to qualify for the first debate. According to analysis outlet FiveThirtyEight, Hutchinson's average standing in national polls has not jumped above 1% since the last forum.

Dowdle said raising a candidate's numbers requires not just making the debate stage, but also television programs with "a decent level of viewership."

"If he can't make the debate stage, it really becomes very difficult in addressing that first set of problems," he said, referring to Hutchinson's polling numbers.

Hutchinson did not offer any flash akin to his Republican opponents during the first debate, instead avoiding confrontations between candidates and using the time to highlight his political resume. He attracted audience jeers and boos when explaining why he would not support Trump as a presidential candidate; Hutchinson and other candidates had to sign a pledge promising to back the party's nominee.

"He was eclipsed in the first debate," said Heather Yates, an associate professor of American politics at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.

"He didn't gain that traction I think his campaign was hoping for. He's been losing traction. And when as a candidate you're losing traction, you also lose visibility, and that also translates to viability."

Yates said viability extends to both voters and donors. The campaign could make the most of the situation this evening, she said, by offering "alternative programming" such as interviews, social media outreach and fundraisers.

"His campaign is really not in a position where it can afford the liability of being absent from that debate stage," she said. "In the last month, he's been trained to compensate the lackluster post-debate performance in the polls with more retail-style politics [and] trying to be on the ground, speaking to people and giving interviews."

Hutchinson said in his statement Monday that his next goal is increasing polling in an early primary state to 4% by Thanksgiving, which is Nov. 23. If he meets that mark, the former governor believes, he will "remain competitive and in contention for either Caucus Day or Primary Day."

"He is going to have to redouble efforts and be incredibly aggressive," Yates said. "How does he campaign in a way that he can come out from under these shadows of other candidates who are naturally gaining the attention from the press?"

Dowdle said Hutchinson's ability to stand out is limited because other candidates are trying to fill similar niches. He mentioned North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as candidates with similar traits to Hutchinson's but better polling numbers.

Dowdle said Hutchinson and Burgum have similar demeanors, while Hutchinson and Christie have positioned their campaigns to represent the anti-Trump wing of the Republican Party.

Yet Burgum and Christie met the debate requirements.

"Most political campaigns -- especially presidential bids -- fail," Dowdle added. "It's like trying to draft quarterbacks in the NFL. Most people whom you end up drafting to play quarterback in the NFL are not going to be successes -- even by moderate standards -- over any period of time."

Hutchinson has a news conference scheduled for this morning in Detroit in which he promises to highlight Trump's "false promises to blue-collar and union workers in Michigan and across America." Trump is set to deliver remarks at an automotive parts manufacturing facility near the same city, a day after President Joe Biden joined striking automotive workers on the picket line.