Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson Says Republicans Must Move Past Trump

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WSJ - Term-limited governor is considering a 2024 presidential bid, hopes to travel later this year to Iowa for GOP’s first nominating contest

By John McCormick

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is contemplating a bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, said he wants his party to show more independence and break away from former President Donald Trump’s hold.

“The next presidential campaign will define the future of our party and we will be in a state of flux until then,” Mr. Hutchinson said in a meeting with reporters and editors at The Wall Street Journal’s headquarters Tuesday. “There’s a significant amount of our base that is happy with an off-ramp from the Trump train.”

The governor said he hopes to travel later this year to Iowa, where Republicans plan to host their first nominating contest of the 2024 presidential election cycle. In late April, he spoke in New Hampshire, where the party is expected to hold its second nominating contest.

His fellow Arkansan, Sen. Tom Cotton, is also contemplating a presidential bid and has already made several trips to Iowa in the past year.


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In suggesting Mr. Trump’s power over the party is waning, Mr. Hutchinson said some of the results from GOP primaries in May, especially the landslide victory for Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, sent a “powerful message” that shows “candidates can run on their own.”

Mr. Kemp beat a candidate backed by Mr. Trump, former Sen. David Perdue, by more than 50 percentage points in the state’s May 24 primary. Mr. Trump’s candidate in a secretary of state race in Georgia also lost, to incumbent Brad Raffensperger, who along with Mr. Kemp had rejected the former president’s false claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election.

‘‘The Trump endorsement is always a significant factor, but it’s not the defining factor and it doesn’t have to be the defining factor.

— Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson

“The Trump endorsement is always a significant factor, but it’s not the defining factor and it doesn’t have to be the defining factor,” said Mr. Hutchinson.

Taylor Budowich, a Trump spokesman, didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Mr. Trump has had some success with his endorsement picks in this year’s primary season, including in Ohio where J.D. Vance came from behind to win a Senate nomination after the former president backed him late in the race. A Wall Street Journal poll in March found 85% of Republican voters nationwide view Mr. Trump favorably.

Mr. Hutchinson, 71 years old, has held his current job since 2015 and is barred by term limits from seeking re-election. He previously served in the U.S. House and as director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and is the current chairman of the National Governors Association.

In dealing with Mr. Trump, Mr. Hutchinson encouraged a more neutral tone than some of the party’s Trump challengers have shown.

“I think Liz Cheney has been too consistently harsh,” he said of the Wyoming congresswoman. “I don’t want to be in that category. I want to be where I recognize the good things Donald Trump did in a lot of different areas—I could give you a long laundry list of that, and I don’t hesitate to talk about that—but this is too important to be shy about the future of the party.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, both potential 2024 Republican presidential candidates, have also suggested the party should distance itself from Mr. Trump. A larger group of possible 2024 GOP presidential candidates have pledged loyalty to the former president, or said they won’t run if he does.

Still others have taken a more nuanced approach. Former Vice President Mike Pence has created some distance from his former boss, as he contemplates a presidential bid and makes appearances in early nomination voting states. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hasn’t said whether he would rule out running in 2024 if Mr. Trump does, as he has worked to build a larger national political network.

Mr. Hutchinson acknowledged that a crowded Republican 2024 presidential primary field could split up the non-Trump vote and might help the former president secure the nomination, something the former president has strongly suggested he wants to do.

“I just don’t know what you can do about it,” he said. “You can’t sit in the corner waiting for Trump to make a decision, and you don’t know whether his decision is final, if he makes a decision.”

Mr. Hutchinson discouraged party leaders from visiting Mr. Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy did shortly after rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. “Every time somebody makes a trip down there like that, you’re empowering him, and I hope that our party reflects more independence in the future,” he said.

Mr. Hutchinson said the goal of reducing the “burden of government” still resonates with the GOP base, but that is no longer sufficient in trying to win those voters. “They also expect you to fight for cultural issues and try to preserve our culture,” he said.

In the wake of last week’s mass killing of 19 children and two teachers, Mr. Hutchinson said he is open to a conversation about raising the minimum age requirement from 18 for the purchase of some “AR-15 style guns” like the one used by an 18-year-old in Uvalde, Texas.

The U.S. “cannot avoid the debate after what we saw down in Uvalde,” he said.

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