LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Leading a state that went heavily for Donald Trump in the 2020 election and that has enacted some of the most aggressive laws on social issues, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson in Arkansas has been in the national spotlight this year.
But not for embracing the state's Trumpian turn. It's for distancing himself from it.
At a time when red state governors like Ron DeSantis in Florida and Kristi Noem of South Dakota are carrying forward Trump's rhetoric and policies, Hutchinson is doing the opposite. He's taking a contrarian position that's making him an outsider in the state party he helped build and that now could test whether there's a path forward for ambitious Republicans in the reddest parts of the country that doesn't rely on the former president.
“He represents an important voice in the party, a voice that is relatively independent of any established consensus," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, whose firm worked with Hutchinson before he was governor. “He thinks for himself and there are a number of us in the party who find that refreshing."
But, Ayres said, where the party is headed right now “remains a very open question."
Hutchinson couldn't be more different than Trump, at least when it comes to style. A mild-mannered attorney, Hutchinson tweets out Bible verses every Sunday morning. He tries to split the difference on contentious issues , such as when he supported keeping the state's Medicaid expansion but with a work requirement later blocked by courts.
He’s also trying to manage an increasingly ominous COVID-19 situation in his state, with cases on the rise and vaccine rates low. His powers to address it were curbed by conservative lawmakers angry about his earlier restrictions.
Midway through his second term, Hutchinson, 70, would seem poised for a big move. He is to take over next week as chairman of the National Governors Association, a position that predecessors Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee used to launch their own White House bids. He's started a political action committee that he said will help Republican candidates in next year's midterm election.
He's also become a fixture on cable television, defending his veto of legislation targeting transgender youths in the state and warning fellow Republicans about tying their fortunes too closely to Trump.
“If Trump is the issue in 2022, we lose," Hutchinson told The Associated Press in a recent interview in his office. “He's not on the ballot and we have to be the party of ideas and principles that are relevant to what's happening in our country today. We can't be revisiting what happened last election and we can't relitigate that."
Hutchinson has provided a contrast with other top Republican figures in his state, including the frontrunner to replace him. Sarah Sanders is seeking the party's nomination with a campaign that showcases her time as Trump's press secretary, during which she regularly sparred with reporters and defended the president's most contentious policies.
Sen. Tom Cotton, a hard-edged conservative, has already been laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign, with visits to key early states.
Hutchinson's history in Arkansas' politics dates back to the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan appointed him as a U.S. attorney. He went on to chair Arkansas' Republican party and was elected to Congress before serving as head of the Drug Enforcement Administration and later as a federal Homeland Security official in George W. Bush's administration.
He ran unsuccessfully for statewide office three times before winning the governorship in 2014. Some critics on his right now say the state's politics have left him behind.
“What he’s done for the last 30 or 40 years isn’t how the party is going to succeed moving forward," said Republican Sen. Trent Garner, who frequently clashed with Hutchinson. “While I can appreciate Gov. Hutchinson’s service, he is a relic of the past. Trump and Trumpism is the bold new future of the Arkansas Republican Party."
Hutchinson leaves office in 2023 and it's unclear what he plans on doing next. Unlike his Democratic predecessor Mike Beebe, Hutchinson won't rule out another run for office.
But he's not making overt moves. He appears more eager to talk about dry policy than identity politics. He testified before a Senate committee in favor of efforts to end the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenders. He aims to promote one of his pet issues: computer science education in public schools.
Hutchinson said next year's midterms may demonstrate whether his message still resonates with the electorate.
Hutchinson drew the ire of some conservative lawmakers this year by vetoing a bill that banned gender confirming treatments for transgender youth. The veto, which was promptly overridden, was also criticized by Trump, who called Hutchinson a “RINO," or Republican In Name Only.
The bill was among several that the governor complained were the product of culture wars and weren't necessary.
But Hutchinson hasn't strayed as far from the right wing as he could have. He was among more than two dozen governors who decided to end supplemental federal unemployment payments before they were set to run out. He's signed other bills restricting transgender people's rights, including one banning trans girls and women from competing on women’s school sports teams.
This week, he announced he was joining the growing list of GOP governors directing law enforcement or other help to Texas to assist with security along the border with Mexico in a fight with the Biden administration over immigration policy. Hutchinson initially said he would not send state troopers, citing public safety needs in the state. But hours later he announced he was dispatching up to 40 members of Arkansas' National Guard.
Hutchinson has defended his party, even when his nephew, state Sen. Jim Hendren, made a high-profile exit after the deadly riot at the U.S Capitol.
Hendren, who has formed a group aimed at promoting centrist candidates, pointed to his uncle as a model for Republicans in the post-Trump era.
“I would be surprised if he's ready to lay down that mantle of public service that he's carried for so long," Hendren said.