Asa Hutchinson has a vision for the future of the presidency … and he’s in it. The former governor of Arkansas kicked off his campaign for the Republican nomination for 2024 at a rally in Bentonville, Arkansas, yesterday, after months of public statements about the need for a kinder, gentler sort of commander in chief. “The Presidency is not and should not be an office of vengeance or retribution,” he said on Twitter on March 8. “Instead, it should be an office of consistent and unwavering leadership.”
This is in direct contrast with what he’s called the “chaos” of the years under former President Trump. Hutchinson is pitching himself as a sort of anti-Trump: an experienced politician with a conservative demeanor to match his ideology, who doesn’t need a Congress full of followers to get things done.
The timing could be right for that strategy. At least some Republican voters are looking for a Trump alternative, and the man previously crowned “Trump without the nonsense,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, ended up creating plenty of his own chaos and is now slipping in the polls. But Hutchinson is currently at the bottom of nearly every early primary poll — his favorability rating was underwater by 7 percentage points and most voters had either never heard of him or had no opinion of him in a Harris Poll/Harvard CAPS survey from April 18-19. Plus, early polls still show Trump is a favorite to win the nomination. Hutchinson can promise voters a president who’s born to be mild, but is that what they want?
Before he decided to pit himself against Trump, Hutchinson was a fan. He endorsed Trump in each of the past two presidential elections. That change of heart gives him something in common with the Republican voters he’s courting, according to a February study from Republican pollster Echelon Insights. Researchers had respondents name their preference in a primary election of hypothetical, same-party candidates who were randomly assigned various attributes. Among Republican voters, a primary candidate was at a sizable disadvantage if the candidate had a history of making controversial comments about other groups. The same study suggests Republican voters also prefer a candidate that has previous political experience.
If the GOP base is truly looking for somewhat less Trumpian leadership, Hutchinson has the right resume. He’s a deeply conservative Christian who went to Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, before returning to Arkansas to attend law school and serve as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas during the Reagan administration. Hutchinson went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives and then in the George W. Bush administration, before being elected governor in 2014.
His conservative policy bona fides include tax cuts and reducing the size of the state government. In 2019, he also signed one of the strictest anti-abortion trigger laws in the country, which went into effect after the Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional right to abortion last year. The law bans all abortion, except to save the woman’s life.
But Hutchinson’s case against Trump has primarily been about attitude and character, not policy. He’s criticized Trump for meeting with white supremacists and said that Trump’s actions during the Jan. 6, 2021, riot should disqualify him.
But Hutchinson is also trying to distinguish himself as someone who can work across the aisle and get Democrats and independents on board with his agenda. He’s argued that he can appeal to more “suburban” voters who don’t want the “chaos” the former president brings. “[W]e can’t just be a Middle America party,” he told The Los Angeles Times.
You can see evidence of his reluctance to go all-in on the culture wars during his time as governor, as well. After that abortion ban went into effect, he said he regretted that it didn’t include more exceptions, such as those for rape and incest. Meanwhile, he helped keep in place a unique Medicaid expansion that was instituted by his Democratic predecessor under the Affordable Care Act, despite pressure from other Republicans in the state to overturn it. (Although he did attempt to institute work requirements for the program that were overturned by the courts.)
And while he signed a law banning transgender girls and women from playing on school sport teams consistent with their gender, he vetoed another bill banning gender-affirming care for minors, which, if it had gone into effect, would have been the first of its kind in the nation. In explaining his veto, Hutchinson appealed to conservative economics, saying it was “a vast government overreach” and would have interfered with family medical decisions. “[T]hey deserve the guiding hand of their parents and the health care professionals that their family has chosen,” he said during a press conference. Given this history, it’s maybe not surprising that Republicans in the state have called him a RINO.
Meanwhile, for as much effort as Hutchinson has put into painting himself as the alternative to “chaos,” that might not do much for him at the polls. While Echelon Insights found controversial candidates to be at a big disadvantage among Republican voters, noncontroversial ones didn’t get a proportionate boost. They were favored but only by a win margin of 1 percent, which could potentially be statistical noise.
The political reporter Dave Weigel, writing in Semafor, called Hutchinson “boring.” And maybe that’s a virtue. It certainly was for President Biden in his 2020 quest to unseat Trump. But being boring alone might not be enough to secure Hutchinson a win.