When I asked Gov. Asa Hutchinson in July 2019 if he would run for president after he left office, he replied by saying, “If there was the right opportunity and need there, that option is on the table.”
It still is, he said from his hotel room in Nashville, Tenn., Wednesday while attending a meeting of the Republican Governors Association.
But whatever happens in 2024 first depends on what happens in 2022.
Fresh off the end of a contentious legislative session – his last regular one – the governor plans to be active on the national scene during his last year-and-a-half in office. He’s been appearing on national media outlets a lot lately. He’s the incoming chairman of the National Governors Association, which will give him further national exposure. And he’s starting a political organization, America Strong and Free, that will serve as a platform for his message during the 2022 mid-term elections.
That message will describe the pragmatic way he has governed in Arkansas and how it could be applied at the national level. It will focus on what he says are the three central principles of the conservative movement: economic conservatism, social conservatism, and a strong national defense along with law and order. He said he wants “new answers and solutions based upon traditional principles.”
He said his message will serve as a contrast to President Joe Biden’s lack of fiscal discipline, expansion of government, and weakness on border security.
It also will serve as a bit of a contrast with the Republican Party’s current direction, where so much of the focus – as seen in the most recent legislative session – is on the social conservative leg of that three-legged stool. Hutchinson, who is 70, said that’s no way to appeal to young millennials.
“I’ve been able to govern in a way that reflects those conservative values across the board but in a balanced way, and I just want to be able to maintain that where we don’t neglect the principles of economic conservatism because we want to engage every day in a culture war,” he said.
The governor was careful not to get too specific about anything past 2022, but he did confirm that he’s still considering running for president in 2024.
“Yes, that answer I gave is still true because I’m healthy, I’m invigorated, I have strong convictions about where we need to go, and if you want to be engaged after you’ve been governor of Arkansas, there’s only a couple of places that give you an avenue for that public engagement,” he said. “And it’s important for me to concentrate on 2022 as everyone should, but you can’t take things off the table for 2024 or what might open up.”
Former President Donald Trump remains the Republican Party’s dominant figure. Many Republican voters love him while many Republican politicians fear him. Hutchinson doesn’t support Trump being the party’s nominee in 2024 and doesn’t believe he will be.
Whether or not Trump runs, his shadow will loom over the Republican primary process. Just as President Ronald Reagan transformed the party in the 1980s when Hutchinson was starting in politics, so too has Trump changed the party now – on issues like immigration and international trade, and also in style and rhetoric.
If Trump doesn’t run, other candidates will try to mimic him or at least inherit his base, which may provide Hutchinson an opportunity to offer what he might call a more “balanced” approach. If Trump runs or if several candidates jockeying to be the next Trump divide the vote, and Hutchinson becomes the top traditional alternative, then theoretically he’s got a shot.
One of the candidates he’d probably have to beat in 2024 is Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton. But that’s another column.
The governor didn’t want to talk about what kind of campaign strategy he might adopt if he does run in 2024 – in part because he doesn’t know. Next year will be his chance to try out his message and see how people respond.
That test, he said, “might tell me I need to go back to the private sector.”
If people respond positively, then that other option is still on the table.