Gov Asa Hutchinson sat down yesterday with KATV’s Janelle Lilley to explain his decision to endorse Marco Rubio for president. 

Hutchinson said that he was initially thinking of not endorsing anyone but after the South Carolina primary, he concluded that “there were only four that could win this race, Marco Rubio is in the top three, and I believe Marco Rubio is the one that can unite our party and win in November.” 

Ringing endorsement! 

“My objective is to make sure that we have a conservative and a conservative that can win,” Hutchinson said. “Marco Rubio is that person.” 

One question that Lilley didn’t ask Hutchinson was to name Rubio’s top accomplishment. This question has stumped previous endorsers of Rubio. It’s a difficult question to answer because there are no accomplishments to point to during Rubio’s time in the Senate, and the one action he’s known for — a failed push for immigration reform — is awkward because Rubio immediately backpedaled away from that once it became clear it would be unpopular in the Republican primaries. He’s now doing his best to pretend that never happened. I’ve asked Hutchinson’s spokesperson what the governor would name as Rubio’s top accomplishment and will update if I get a response. 

Hutchinson said that Rubio could “articulate” but didn’t say what he could articulate. He said that Rubio was the most electable candidate and would help the GOP down ballot.

The governor repeated, in broad strokes, Rubio’s talking points and said that while he didn’t agree with Rubio on everything, it comes down to “the economy and keeping us safe.”

Hutchinson mostly went out of his way not to slam any other candidates, but the implication was that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz might not be so helpful for Republican prospects in November. He said that he had met with both of them when they visited and welcomed them back. But, the governor said, Trump is “divisive, that’s part of his schtick. And then you have Ted Cruz, who’s been on the attack lately as well.” Hutchinson said Rubio was more focused on the November election and that he had not been as “divisive a personality.” 

This is the core appeal of Rubio: he’s basically running as George W. Bush 2.0, but the Republican establishment has concluded that his disciplined style and relatively sunny message will allow him to win a general election. He’s their last hope against the potential Trump trainwreck (or Cruz crash). Hutchinson continually said that Rubio was the one to “unite the party.” 

That’s why Republican elites like Hutchinson are rushing to back Rubio. He’s gathered a huge pile of endorsements in the last several days and is now undoubtedly the “party decides” choice. My suspicion is that it’s too late. Trump is likely to continue to dominate most of the primaries and caucuses voting in the next two weeks and he is going to begin to rack up a big lead. 

The Republican establishment is hoping that Rubio can pull off a comeback by racking up big victories in winner-take-all blue states later in the calendar. The problem is that Trump is vastly more popular in many of the key blue states than Rubio. 

Noah Millman of the American Conservative notes that Rubio is an odd fit for the role of establishment candidate because unlike someone like Mitt Romney, Rubio is no moderate. He’s wildly right wing: 

[H]is positioning in his Senate election and in terms of his stances on a host of issues is quite right-wing—more right-wing than Trump’s on most issues apart from immigration. … 

Because that’s the thing: Trump is not only a candidate running against the establishment; he’s also the relative centrist in a three-way race with two distinctly right-wing candidates. Rubio is far more palatable to moderate and “somewhat” conservative voters than Cruz is in such a race. But it’s not obvious to me that he’s far more palatable than Trump.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s clear that the GOP establishment is about to line up fully behind Rubio, certainly if reports like these are to be believed. It’s just worth remembering that this is itself a bit of a strange result, and, therefore, it shouldn’t be too surprising if even more centrist, establishment-oriented Republican voters don’t fully fall into line.

Trump is dominating the polling in places like Massachusetts, Vermont, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania… These are the sorts of states that have traditionally given the establishment pick a firewall and led candidates like Romney in 2012 to start running up the score. The problem is that this year, the establishment pick, Rubio, is a right-wing idealogue who is an awkward fit for those states. Trump, a secular, populist nationalist who is moderate or even liberal on basically every issue other than immigration, is a much better fit. He’s an angry outsider and an ideologically flexible blue state Republican. That might just be the ticket this year. 

In some ways, all the endorsements for Rubio might almost seem counterproductive; the stamp of approval from insiders in an outsider’s year. But I suspect that the (gasping) hope is that the massive wave of signals from party elites may help make Rubio in blue states which have traditionally backed the establishment pick. Rubio may be a Bible-thumping Tea Partier who is one of the most right-wing members of Congress….but at least he’s Bob Dole’s second choice! Seriously, though, that’s why you see all this stuff about uniting the party and electability. That’s supposed to play in, well, Peoria. 

The whole gambit looks like a long shot to me but I do think Hutchinson’s endorsement will help Rubio in the red state of Arkansas. A win here would be a boon — Rubio keeps giving victory speeches even though he keeps losing states. The idea that he’s the consensus choice is never going to take hold in the delegate-rich blue states to come if Rubio never gets around to winning a state. He has a real shot in Arkansas, one of the few states where Trump isn’t dominating the polling. If Rubio is shut out of a victory on March 1, he might be toast. 

p.s. Hutchinson said his first choice was a governor with a blue collar background. Sounds like his heart was with John Kasich of Ohio (who like Hutchinson took some flack from the Tea Party by opting in for Medicaid expansion).