By ANDREW DeMILLO
WASHINGTON (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is considering running for president, on Tuesday called a third Donald Trump White House bid the “worst scenario” for Republicans and said his call for terminating parts of the Constitution hurts the country.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Hutchinson said he planned to make a decision early next year on whether to seek the Republican presidential nomination. Hutchinson, 72, leaves office in January after serving eight years as Arkansas’ governor.
He’s part of a growing cohort of Republicans eyeing a White House run at a challenging moment for the party, which fell short of its hopes for sweeping victories in last month’s midterm elections. Trump, who has already announced another run for the presidency, has faced blame from some Republicans for contributing to the GOP’s lackluster performance by elevating candidates and issues that didn’t resonate with voters during the general election.
Hutchinson has previously said he wouldn’t support Trump’s candidacy in 2024, but on Tuesday, he didn’t rule out backing Trump if he becomes the Republican nominee.
“That’s really the worst scenario,” Hutchinson said of another matchup between Trump and Biden. “That’s almost the scenario that Biden wishes for. And that’s probably how he got elected the first time. It became, you know, a binary choice for the American people between the challenges that we saw in the Trump presidency, particularly the closing days, versus Biden, who he made it that choice.”
Hutchinson also derided Trump’s recent statement calling for terminating parts of the Constitution to overturn the 2020 election as “so out of line and out of step with America that it almost does not deserve a response.”
“It hurts our country,” he said. “I mean, any leader, former president that says suspend the Constitution is tearing at the fabric of our democracy. And so we want to make sure that the people know that it’s Republicans that support the rule of law.”
Hutchinson said he’s measuring how much financial support he’d have for mounting a presidential bid, but said he’s also testing to see what kind of response his message is getting as he weighs a run. Hutchinson, who’s been a regular presence on Sunday news talk shows, said he’s been reaching out to other governors, members of Congress and evangelical leaders for advice on a possible run.
“The midterm elections made it clear to me that the GOP needs a bold agenda, but also new voices that’s articulating what our party stands for, the direction we want to take our country,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson said he didn’t view the midterms as a rejection of Republicans overall as much as of specific candidates.
“We’re very disappointed that because of poor candidates, poor messaging, looking back instead of looking forward, we didn’t do as well as we should have in the midterm election,” he said.
Hutchinson is among several Republican candidates who are weighing a presidential run. Others include former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Another Arkansan, Sen. Tom Cotton, announced he wasn’t seeking the Republican nomination.
Despite the potentially crowded field, Hutchinson said he doesn’t expect a repeat of 2016 when GOP rivals hoping to block Trump’s candidacy instead split the vote. Hutchinson said he thinks the early primary and caucus states will winnow the number of rivals to Trump very quickly.
“I think it will be much more methodical this cycle than what we’ve seen in previous years,” he said. “And I think that competition is good and it’s healthy.”
Though he’s offering himself up as a new voice, Hutchinson has been a fixture in Arkansas politics going back to the 1980s when the state was predominantly Democratic. Hutchinson is a former congressman who served in former President George W. Bush’s administration as the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration and an undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
Hutchinson has ramped up his criticism of Trump in recent months, including a speech at the Reagan Library where he recounted his experience as a U.S. attorney who prosecuted white supremacists in Arkansas in the 1980s. Hutchinson contrasted that background with Trump having dinner with a Holocaust-denying white nationalist and a rapper who has spewed antisemitic conspiracies.
Hutchinson said that contrast is one of the reasons he thinks his voice may be needed in the presidential race. Republicans need figures who speak the truth and are not worried “whether you’re satisfying somebody down in Mar-a-Lago or not,” he said.
Hutchinson earned the ire of Trump last year when the governor vetoed legislation that would ban gender-affirming care for minors. GOP lawmakers overrode Hutchinson’s veto and enacted the ban, which has been blocked by a federal judge.
Trump called Hutchinson a RINO — Republican in Name Only — for vetoing the ban. The governor’s successor, former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, has said she would have signed the ban into law.
Hutchinson, who has said he would have signed the measure if it was limited to gender-affirming surgery, called Arkansas’ legislation “one of the most extreme in the country.”
A vocal opponent of abortion who has signed other restrictions on transgender youth into law, Hutchinson said Republicans need to tread carefully on culture wars issues.
“The key thing is for Republicans and conservatives is to think about let’s not instinctively say, well, let’s use the power of government to accomplish our social agenda or our cultural agenda,” he said. “You know, our first response is a strength in the home, the strength and the families and the communities and our churches and synagogues strengthen those because that’s the greatest impact on our culture.”
Nearing the end of his eight years as governor, Hutchinson is touting his work on tax cuts and on expanding computer science courses as his top accomplishments. Hutchinson, who wrapped up his one-year term as National Governors Association chairman in July, is term limited and could not seek reelection. He said he thinks it’s important to have a governor running for the office.
“I’m known for having a steady hand in leadership, but also a bold agenda,” he said. “And I think that’s a good combination for a leader of the country.”