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In Post-Trump GOP Split, Gov. Asa Hutchinson Often At Odds With His Party

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Conservative Republicans have been their party's standard bearers for years. Now, people like Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson are struggling to figure out where they fit in as the party increasingly aligns itself with former President Trump. Daniel Breen of member station KUAR in Little Rock has more.

DANIEL BREEN, BYLINE: Throughout his assent to Arkansas' highest office, Asa Hutchinson has always styled himself as a traditional small-government conservative, as evidenced by this "Say Yes To The Dress"-themed campaign ad from 2014.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Brittany) The Asa Hutchinson is perfect. Asa Hutchinson is becoming a trusted brand. He has new ideas that don't break your budget.

BREEN: Hutchinson began his career as a trial lawyer and later a U.S. attorney. Then, after chairing the state Republican Party, he served two terms in Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASA HUTCHINSON: Some believe these votes could result in a backlash and have serious political repercussions. They may be right, but I will leave the analysis to others.

BREEN: This is Hutchinson serving as an impeachment manager against his fellow Arkansan President Bill Clinton.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HUTCHINSON: My preeminent concern is that the Constitution be followed.

BREEN: Hutchinson then held positions in the George W. Bush administration, including heading the DEA. Then, after an unsuccessful run, he won his first term as governor in 2014. He has drawn criticism from across the aisle, particularly for supporting tax cuts for the state's highest earners, for restricting access to abortion and of making Arkansas the first state to impose a work requirement for some Medicaid recipients. Despite that, he is regularly ranked one of the most popular governors in the country. In the 2016 presidential election, the governor first supported his predecessor, Mike Huckabee, then Florida Senator Marco Rubio...

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

HUTCHINSON: This election isn't a show. The consequences are real.

BREEN: ...But eventually endorse Donald Trump as his party's presumptive nominee. During the Trump administration, Hutchinson never directly contradicted the president, but those on the far-right end of the party have labeled the governor a RINO or a Republican in name only. Take Jan Morgan, Hutchinson's unsuccessful primary challenger in 2018. Perhaps best known for banning Muslims from her gun range, Morgan was an early adopter of shaming the governor. Here she is talking to KUAR in 2018.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAN MORGAN: Me and my opponent is going to come down to your decision as either a big tax-and-spend governor who is a progressive, an establishment progressive or a constitutional conservative.

BREEN: But over the past year, Arkansans got a full dose of the increasing polarization of the Republican Party. With the onset of COVID-19, Hutchinson was one of the first governors in the South to require face masks statewide and issued a number of executive orders related to the pandemic. That drew ire from numerous lawmakers...

(SOUNDBITE OF GAVEL BANGING)

BREEN: ...Who felt the governor and state agencies left them out of the process. Here's Republican state senator Dan Sullivan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAN SULLIVAN: Well, folks, they handcuff us. They have the keys to the handcuff. All they have to do is include the legislature in these discussions.

BREEN: This year, lawmakers shifted their focus to hot-button social issues. Banning gender-affirming care for trans minors brought the session's biggest legislative battle. State Representative Mary Bentley quoted the Bible in supporting that bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARY BENTLEY: A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man nor a man put on a woman's garments. For all who do so are an abomination to the Lord, your God.

BREEN: The governor vetoed the bill, calling it government overreach.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HUTCHINSON: I have on my desk another bill passed by the General Assembly that is a product of the cultural war in America.

BREEN: But lawmakers soon undid his veto, and it became law. As for what's next, Hutchinson's term-limited from running for governor again, but with his increasing presence on the national stage, he could be eyeing a run for the White House in 2024.

For NPR News, I'm Daniel Breen in Little Rock. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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