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Asa Hutchinson is Mr. Normal. That won't fly in 2024.

The former Arkansas governor is the very model of a Reagan Republican in a primary where that doesn't matter nearly as much anymore.
Photo illustration of Asa Hutchinson
MSNBC; AP; Getty Images

The first GOP primary debate features 8 candidates — and one Trump-sized elephant in the room. Are any of the hopefuls fit to be president? Read this installment of MSNBC’s 2024 profile series and find out.

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson might have done well in some other GOP presidential primary. He’s what many people born before 9/11 have imprinted in their brains as a “normal Republican.” But that is absolutely not the case in 2023, when his presidential campaign — which hinges on an argument that former President Donald Trump isn’t fit for the job — has been met with either yawns or disdain.

It was Ronald Reagan’s speech at the 1964 Republican convention that propelled the former actor into national politics and first drew Hutchinson to the party, according to a recent profile in Politico Magazine. Hutchinson is the rare case of a conservative politician who has stayed the same even as the GOP has shifted around him in recent years. As a result, he’s one of those Reagan Republicans who have since become an endangered species.

He’s got the kind of résumé that would have made him a serious contender for the White House in some bygone decade.

He’s got the kind of résumé that would have made him a serious contender for the White House in some bygone decade. He’s a former congressman from Arkansas who served as impeachment manager against the state’s favorite son, President Bill Clinton. He was briefly the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency under George W. Bush, before becoming the effective No. 2 at the newly formed Department of Homeland Security. He rode the wave of anti-Democratic fervor under President Barack Obama to the governorship and won a second term in 2018.

His time in the governor’s mansion wasn’t exactly a great time for Arkansas liberals. Hutchinson was a proponent of lower taxes, smaller government and the proposition that work requirements make people less dependent on handouts. But he also demonstrated a willingness to buck the most extreme voices in his party. He refused to sign a “religious freedom” bill in 2015 that opponents said would open the door to discrimination against LGBTQ Arkansans. (He signed an amended version of the bill that hewed closer to federal law a few weeks later.)

Likewise, Hutchinson was completely willing to sign a ban on trans girls and women playing high school and college sports. But he initially vetoed an attempt to ban all gender-affirming care for trans youths in the state. Hutchinson wrote in The Washington Post at the time that he did so because the bill “creates new standards of legislative interference with physicians and parents as they deal with some of the most complex and sensitive matters concerning our youths,” calling it a “a vast government overreach.” That argument fell flat with the GOP-controlled Legislature, which voted to override his veto soon after.

It’s a stance that has gotten Hutchinson some flack on the campaign trail — but nothing compared to his outspoken belief that Trump is a weight on the party and the country. He’s called out his fellow candidates for their support for the former president in light of his indictments. He recently told NPR that he still believes that Trump’s grip on the party will loosen in the coming weeks and months. And he’s said that he won’t vote for Trump if he’s nominated and convicted, something very few prominent Republicans have indicated.

It’s a pretty big line in the sand to draw when you’ve only just barely scraped onto the GOP debate stage. And part of the cost of that invitation is signing a pledge to support the eventual nominee — even if it’s Trump. NBC News reported on Sunday that Hutchinson is expected to do just that, despite his past criticism of it. It would seem like a small price to pay to have the kind of audience that the debate allows.

But all of this is premised on the assumption that the party has an appetite for the brand of moderate Republicanism that Hutchinson offers. Who knows, though? Given the way that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “anti-woke” campaign is floundering, maybe Hutchinson is right. But if those voters are out there, they’re being awfully quiet — and Hutchinson is going to need them to speak up much, much sooner if he’s going to make it past Iowa, let alone to the nomination itself.

Read the rest of our GOP profile series here: