Asa Hutchinson, who recently completed two terms as Arkansas governor, said Sunday he will seek the Republican presidential nomination, positioning himself as an alternative to Donald Trump just days after the former president was indicted by a grand jury in New York.
Hutchinson said Trump should drop out of the race, arguing “the office is more important than any individual person.”
Hutchinson, who announced his candidacy on ABC's “This Week,” said he was running because “I believe that I am the right time for America, the right candidate for our country and its future." He added: “I'm convinced that people want leaders that appeal to the best of America and not simply appeal to our worst instincts.”
He is the first Republican to enter the race since Trump became the only former U.S. president to ever face criminal charges. Hutchinson's candidacy will test the GOP's appetite for those who speak out against Trump. Others who have criticized Trump, including former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, have opted against a campaign, sensing the difficulty of prevailing in a primary.
Hutchinson, in an Associated Press interview later Sunday, said it was important for voters to have an alternative leader and “not simply go by default to somebody who is really wrapped around what happened in the past.”
“I don’t think you have to be blustery. I think you can be honest and authentic, and that’s what I want to be able to offer,” he said.
In a sign of Trump's continued grip on the Republican base, most in the party — even those considering challenging him for the nomination — have defended him against the New York indictment. Hutchinson, notably, had said Friday that Trump should “step aside," calling the charges a “distraction.”
In addition to Trump, Hutchinson joins a Republican field that also includes former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to jump into the race in the summer, while U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Vice President Mike Pence are among those considering bids.
“I think I stand out by stating my convictions and my vision for the country," Hutchinson told the AP. "I think that is illustrated in the last week, in how I’ve handled the Trump indictment, how I’ve handled how we need to move forward as a party and a country.”
The formal campaign announcement will come April 26 in Bentonville, his hometown and also the home of Walmart’s headquarters. He will be campaigning in the coming weeks in Iowa, Indiana and Kentucky.
He said he could be very competitive in places like Iowa, where campaigning involves “retail politics” like chatting with potential voters in diners. He also said he believed he would be financially competitive, though, “certainly it’s not going to be at the level of the Donald Trumps of the world.”
Hutchinson, 72, left office in January after eight years as governor. He has ramped up his criticism of the former president in recent months, calling another Trump presidential nomination the “worst scenario" for Republicans and saying it will likely benefit President Joe Biden's chances in 2024.
The former governor, who was term-limited, has been a fixture in Arkansas politics since the 1980s, when the state was predominantly Democratic. A former congressman, he was one of the House managers prosecuting the impeachment case against President Bill Clinton.
Hutchinson served as President George W. Bush's head of the Drug Enforcement Administration and was an undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
As governor, Hutchinson championed a series of income tax cuts as the state's budget surpluses grew. He signed several abortion restrictions into law, including a ban on the procedure that took effect when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade last year. Hutchinson, however, has said he regretted that the measure did not include exceptions for rape or incest.
Hutchinson earned the ire of Trump and social conservatives last year when he vetoed legislation banning gender-affirming medical care for children. Arkansas' majority-Republican Legislature overrode Hutchinson's veto and enacted the ban, which has been temporarily blocked by a federal judge.
Trump called Hutchinson a “RINO” — a Republican In Name Only — for the veto. Hutchinson's successor, former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, has said she would have signed the legislation.
Since taking office, she’s signed legislation aimed at reinstating the currently blocked ban by making it easier to sue providers of such care to minors.
Hutchinson, who endorsed Sanders and signed other restrictions on transgender youth into law, said the Arkansas ban went too far and that he would have signed the measure if it had focused only on surgery.
Although he has supported Trump's policies, Hutchinson has become increasingly critical of the former president's rhetoric and lies about the 2020 presidential election. He said Trump's call to terminate parts of the Constitution to overturn the election hurt the country.
Hutchinson also criticized Trump for meeting with white nationalist leader Nick Fuentes and the rapper Ye, who has praised Adolf Hitler and spewed antisemitic conspiracy theories. Hutchinson has contrasted that meeting to his own background as a U.S. attorney who prosecuted white supremacists in Arkansas in the 1980s.
An opponent of the federal health care law, Hutchinson after taking office supported keeping Arkansas' version of Medicaid expansion. But he championed a work requirement for the law that was blocked by a federal judge.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Hutchinson tried to push back against misinformation about the virus with daily news conferences and a series of town halls he held around the state aimed at encouraging people to get vaccinated.
The former governor is known more for talking policy than for fiery speeches, often flanked by charts and graphs at his news conferences at the state Capitol. Instead of picking fights on Twitter, he tweets out Bible verses every Sunday morning.