In a Nov. 7, 1986, Arkansas Gazette op-ed, former Bill Clinton aide Steve Smith had this to say about the GOP’s 35-year-old candidate for U.S. Senate, who had just been crushed by incumbent Democrat Dale Bumpers by a margin of some 24 percentage points: “Although Asa Hutchinson lost the election, he is unlikely to read the returns as a personal defeat or a rejection of his vision of politics. In fact, when Hutchinson first announced his candidacy … informed speculation was that it was a somewhat Quixotic exercise to practice for some future race.”
Four years later, in 1990, Hutchinson ran for attorney general against Democrat Winston Bryant. He lost again. His third failed bid for statewide office came in 2006, when Democrat Mike Beebe defeated him in the gubernatorial race. And yet, in November 2014, Hutchinson’s vision of politics was finally vindicated when he handily won the governorship over Democrat Mike Ross. Smith was right; Hutchinson was practicing for a future race back in 1986. It just took him 28 years to get there.
After decades spent laboring in the wilderness as a Republican in Yellow Dog Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson now enters office with the wind at his back and strong Republican majorities in the state legislature. His path to the office is, in some ways, the story of the modern GOP’s ascent to power in Arkansas. For these reasons, he is the Arkansas Times 2014 Arkansan of the Year.
Losses and wins
In 1972, as a 22-year-old law student at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Hutchinson volunteered for Democrat David Pryor’s campaign for U.S. Senate, but he quickly realized his political inclinations lay in a different direction.
“It was a taste of politics, which I enjoyed,” Hutchinson told the Times, “but I just identified more with Ronald Reagan’s conservative philosophy of government.”
“I also believed the minority party needed to be stronger, and I devoted myself for many decades to building a strong two-party system,” he said. “Despite some of my lawyer friends and colleagues [at the time] saying there’s no future for me if I became a Republican, I did it anyway.”
For an ambitious young Republican in staunchly Democratic Arkansas, the political pickings were slim. Hutchinson was elected as Bentonville City Attorney in 1977, when he and his wife Susan were first beginning to raise a family (they married in 1973). His big break came in 1982, when President Reagan appointed him U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas. From then until 2015, every public office that Hutchinson has held has been at the federal level, not the state — a fairly remarkable fact given how long he’s been a fixture of famously parochial Arkansas politics.
“He went the federal route because that was the only viable Republican path in Arkansas at that time,” said Jay Barth, professor of politics at Hendrix College (and a columnist for this paper). Then again, the overwhelming dominance of the Democrats also created opportunity. “He was chosen as federal attorney because the [Republican] bench was so shallow back then,” Barth said. At age 31, Hutchinson was the youngest U.S. Attorney in the nation at the time.
After he lost the race for attorney general in 1990, he chaired the state Republican Party for five years (initially in partnership with Sheffield Nelson and later on his own), demonstrating a willingness to invest years of unglamorous effort in the partisan trenches. Rex Nelson, a veteran columnist and former spokesman for Gov. Mike Huckabee, says that it was during this period that Hutchinson’s leadership within the GOP truly gelled.
“You’ve got to realize that the party really had been torn apart by the primary for governor in ’90 between Sheffield Nelson and Tommy Robinson,” Nelson said. “Here were two Democrats who both switched to the Republican Party and ran against each other, and it was a very bitter gubernatorial race.” (Sheffield Nelson won the primary, only to be defeated by incumbent Bill Clinton that fall.)
“In came Asa to try to heal those scars, and unlike Sheffield and Tommy, who had both been Democrats, Asa was a lifelong Republican, so he was probably a good pick to come in and kind of clean up. There was a lot of healing to be done at that point.”
In 1996, Hutchinson ran for U.S. representative in the 3rd District — for years, the only reliably Republican congressional seat in the state — and won handily. In 2001, he was appointed by President George W. Bush to run first the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and then one of the primary arms of the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS). He left the federal bureaucracy in 2005 to run for governor of Arkansas the following year, in which he was trounced by Beebe.
Then came November 2014. In addition to the governorship, Republicans swept every statewide and federal office and expanded their majorities in both legislative chambers. It’s not hard for an observer to conclude that Arkansas has seamlessly transitioned from a one-party Democratic state to one-party Republican rule.
“It is an interesting change historically,” Hutchinson said to the Times, in a characteristically measured understatement. “But I think, despite the dominance in the election, we still have a good two-party system in this state. … I want to make sure the Republican Party doesn’t develop arrogance. I don’t want us to develop a sense of entitlement; we need to earn the voters’ respect every day by the way we perform.”
Before the most recent election, it was easy for Democrats to smirk at Hutchinson’s 0-3 win-loss record in statewide races over three decades of politicking. The fact that he’s been the overeager face of the Arkansas Republican Party throughout much of that time made it all the sweeter. Now, it seems like Hutchinson just needed to give Arkansas enough time to come around to him.
Janine Parry, the University of Arkansas professor of politics who conducts the state’s annual Arkansas Poll, said that one electoral challenge still remains for Hutchinson in his lifelong mission to build the Republican Party in Arkansas. While Arkansas voters resoundingly rejected the Democratic Party’s brand in November, Parry questioned whether they fully accepted the GOP’s.
“What’s interesting is that when you ask people the generic party identification question — ‘Do you consider yourself as a Republican, Democrat or independent?’ — the percentages haven’t moved substantially in the 16 years since I’ve been tracking it,” Parry said. “What has moved in the past four years is that those independents have taken a hard and consistent rightward shift — but they’re not ready yet to declare themselves Republicans. They’re buying the product, but they’re still not fully buying the brand.
“I think a lot of that responsibility now rests on Asa Hutchinson, as the leader of this new majority party.”
Continued Republican dominance remains an open question as long as these partisanship numbers remain “soft,” Parry continued. “While Mike Huckabee was by almost any measure a successful governor … he left the party remarkably untransformed. His governorship was successful, his party was not. So if I were Asa Hutchinson, I would feel like that was a golden opportunity, and also a burden.”
Continuity and change
Bumpers, Pryor, Clinton and even Huckabee, in a way, used the small, tight orbit of the Arkansas governorship to launch themselves into the larger sphere of national politics. Hutchison has done it backward. After climbing into the upper echelons of the national Republican establishment, he’s finally found his way into state government at age 62. What now?
Ask people who’ve worked with Hutchinson to speculate and they’ll usually begin with an appraisal of his temperament, which has been smoothed into a meticulously circumspect amiability by years of political battles and more years in private practice as an attorney. (Throughout his career, he’s spent several long periods concentrating on his legal work.)
“He’s a very smart guy, very thoughtful, very respectful,” said Vic Snyder, who served as 2nd District congressman until 2010. Snyder, a Democrat with progressive tendencies, entered the U.S. House the same year as Hutchinson, in 1996. “If he’s talking to somebody, whether it’s another member or a constituent, he’s always very polite, a good Southern gentleman. He talks to people in the spirit of trying to understand them, trying to learn from them. … I think he’ll do well.”
In the early 2000s, when Hutchinson was tapped by Bush to help run the newly created Department of Homeland Security, he worked closely with fellow undersecretary Michael D. Brown to perform the massive task of reorganizing a large swath of the federal government. (Brown ran the portion of the agency that included FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency; he later took much of the blame for the Bush administration’s bungled response to Hurricane Katrina.)
“Asa’s somebody that can listen,” Brown said. “I mean, to really sit down, shut your mouth, process that, and hear where somebody is coming from … I think it comes from legal training. If you’re in a courtroom, you really have to understand where the other side is coming from, if you either defend against it or prosecute against it. He’s very good at that.” This may be why, despite his fundamental conservatism, Hutchinson developed a reputation during his time in Washington as a pragmatist capable of reaching across the aisle. “Asa will come up with something that people will disagree with, and they may hate what he’s trying to do, but they’ll never hate him,” Brown said.
Democrats in the Arkansas legislature, for their part, say they’re more than willing to work with both Hutchinson and the Republican legislative leadership. “My hat’s off to Governor Hutchinson. The people spoke and they elected him, and it is my belief that he’ll be a very fair-handed governor,” said Rep. Eddie Armstrong of North Little Rock, the House minority leader. Rep. Joe Jett (D-Success), another leading Democrat, said he was “cautiously optimistic” based on early conversations. “I feel like — until they prove me wrong — we’re going to have a fair, open, honest debate [in the session],” he said.
Rex Nelson predicted that Hutchinson will govern much like his two predecessors. “I think that we will see him be a pragmatic, moderate governor, just as Mike Beebe was a pragmatic, moderate Democrat and Mike Huckabee was a pragmatic, moderate Republican for 10-and-half years before that. … I certainly don’t see Asa Hutchinson backing himself into some ideological corner and pushing hard for things that have no chance to pass.
“That kind of good government tends to be good politics. If you look at the Arkansas Poll that came out this fall, the two most popular political figures in Arkansas are Beebe and Huckabee, by far.”
Yet for all of Hutchinson’s talents and tenacity, he perhaps lacks the singular political levers possessed by the last two governors. He has neither Huckabee’s unique charisma nor Beebe’s long decades of direct experience in state politics. Huckabee was a natural populist, a skilled showman, to his benefit and his detriment. While it’s hard to imagine Hutchinson flirting with scandal the way Huckabee so often did as governor — the biggest embarrassment endured by the Hutchinson campaign in 2014 was the time he accidentally left his ID at home when voting in the primary — it’s also an open question whether he can muster popular sentiment in support of his initiatives, especially after spending so much of his career doing the behind-the-scenes work of an establishment insider.
Beebe is a closer match to Hutchinson in style — he too is a consummate insider — but by the time Beebe came to power in 2006, he’d already spent over 20 years in the Capitol.
“It’s very difficult to compare anyone to Gov. Beebe’s preparation, because that’s pretty unusual,” said Snyder, who served in the state legislature alongside Beebe in the early 1990s. “We’re just not going to have that level of preparation for most governors.” Still, Snyder cautioned, Hutchinson’s years in the political wilderness weren’t wasted, either. “He ran for statewide office three times … I mean, I’m envious of the number of little catfish places he’s probably eaten in, in those three races. He’s traveled the state a lot. He didn’t win, but he certainly reached out to people. I don’t see that there’s a big handicap in that he was never secretary of state or something.”
Jay Barth agreed that Hutchinson would attempt to govern from the center. “I don’t think he wants to do any of the social [issues] stuff … . It’s just not what he’s about. He’s about basic conservative governance. … He’s a very conservative guy, but he’s just not out there.”
To progressives and moderates, that is indeed reason for cautious optimism. However, they’re not the only voices in the room. In certain quarters within the GOP, that same statement — it’s just not what he’s about — sets off alarm bells.
A house divided
The Republican Party in Arkansas, like the GOP nationally, faces a groundswell of discontent from within its own ranks: Hard-right social conservatives and small-government activists (who are sometimes, but not always, the same people) are determined to advance their agendas. The same intraparty rifts in Washington, D.C., that pit Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and his allies against establishment Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner are playing out in our own statehouse. And here, especially, the populist right is ascendant. Most of the big GOP gains in the Arkansas legislature in November were the work of Tea Party-affiliated candidates, often folks who supported Hutchinson’s more conservative rival in the primary last spring, Curtis Coleman. Although Hutchinson was labeled an arch-conservative by his opponents back in the 1980s, he now finds himself in what passes for the moderate wing of the Republican Party.
“I think [Hutchinson] does want to be the Republican Mike Beebe,” Barth said. “The key question is, does he have the fortitude to do that? The question is not so much what he wants, but can he achieve it in a party where mainstream Republicans like him are not in the majority?”
“There’s clearly some division in the party, and the challenge looms larger now that they actually have to govern,” Janine Parry noted. “Trying to chart a course between the social conservatives, the economic conservatives, some of the more libertarian members — that’s a tough duty.”
General elections have a way of unifying a party, but the election is over. This week, the 2015 legislative session began, which means we’re about to see the re-emergence of the same rifts within the GOP that dominated the 2013 and 2014 sessions. Chief among them is the private option — Arkansas’s unique approach to health care reform, which uses federal Medicaid dollars to pay for private insurance coverage for over 200,000 low-income Arkansans, most of whom were previously uninsured.
Tea Party Republicans loathe the private option because it’s a component of the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), but establishment Republicans and Democrats embrace it, as do their allies in the hospital industry. Depending on your political perspective, the private option is either a marvel of innovative, bipartisan cooperation — it was crafted by Republican legislators in negotiations with Gov. Beebe — or a betrayal of every principle of small government that conservatives claim to hold dear. Because a quirk of the state Constitution requires a three-quarters supermajority in both chambers to pass a spending bill, the right wing of the GOP may well be able to block the appropriation reauthorizing the private option. They almost succeeded last year, and they’ve just made significant legislative gains. That sets up a showdown within the Republican ranks and the specter of a D.C.-style government shutdown in Little Rock if the General Assembly proves unable to agree upon a budget.
It also presents a particularly thorny problem for a new governor trying to solidify his party’s brand. Fighting to keep the private option will enrage half his base; abandoning it would alienate the other. Kicking 200,000 people off their insurance is hardly a winning political strategy, either, and the federal Medicaid money that the policy brings into the state adds over $100 million in revenue to the budget. For those reasons, the conventional wisdom says Hutchinson has no choice but to support the private option. Since the election, he’s said only that he’s studying the policy in detail and plans to make a major speech announcing his position on Jan. 22.
Unsurprisingly, Hutchinson himself played down the divisions within the GOP. “I mean, this is healthy — disagreement’s not bad for democracy, it’s good,” he said. “We’re going through a period of controversy and debate over health care, an important issue, but also the affordability of it, and that’s a fair debate.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are mindful of the divisions among the Republicans. “The real matter is how are they going to work within their own party’s confines — and that’s not for us to worry about,” said Armstrong, the minority leader. “We want to make certain we are focused on responsible policy and responsible government, on middle-class Arkansans.”
Hutchinson would rather focus his attention on other, less divisive issues. His first priority is to pass an income tax cut for middle-income Arkansans (those making between $20,400 and $75,000 annually), which would cost the state an estimated $100 million in lost revenue. Although the plan is of dubious merit given Arkansas’s long list of needs in education, roads and other areas, trying to cut taxes does make political sense — the entire Republican caucus will support the proposal, and likely many Democrats as well — and it’s entirely in keeping with Hutchinson’s conservative sensibilities.
More surprising, and bolder, is his stated interest in reforming elements of the criminal justice system. Arkansas’s prisons and jails are underfunded and overfilled, and the Arkansas Department of Correction (ADC) has requested the legislature provide it with an additional $100 million to build a new prison, about which neither Republicans nor Democrats are very enthusiastic. Hutchinson announced earlier this month that he’d asked his new ADC head to look into other options for reducing the prison population, including overhauling the state’s parole system and getting serious about tackling recidivism among offenders.
“You’ve got to have more prison space to keep violent criminals off the streets, but you’ve also got to have an effective parole system that includes accountability,” Hutchinson said. He said Arkansas needs “better re-entry programs … [that] help them to get a job and to be productive so they aren’t returning back to prison.” He even spoke of the need to invest money in such efforts — startling and refreshing words from a fiscal conservative with a background in law enforcement. Criminal justice reform is one issue, at least, on which the battle lines between Tea Partiers and establishment Republicans aren’t so clearly drawn.
On the whole, the two camps of the GOP probably still agree more often than they disagree. On issues like abortion or gun rights, the caucus will be unified; they’ll be all too happy to join hands in rolling back environmental protections and giving tax breaks to big industry. However, the private option isn’t the only possible intra-party flash point: Education issues, such as the Common Core State Standards, might also reveal divisions among the Republicans. How deep those divisions will be still remains to be seen.
The 2014 election was historic for Arkansas, and through perseverance, skill and luck, Asa Hutchinson has rightfully inherited its fruits. But there’s another potential historical moment lurking in the wings, one that’s not as sweet for the new governor: the rise of an activist, populist base whose outsider instincts and mistrust of establishment institutions may be at basic odds with the party’s business wing (which Hutchinson embodies). Ironically, his moment of victory comes at the same time the GOP — the party which he helped to build from the ground up in Arkansas — faces internal divisions that threaten its very ability to govern the state.