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Feb 24, 2023, 12:40pm EST
politics

Asa Hutchinson bets on boring

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson
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The Scene

TUCSON, AZ – Donald Trump went to eastern Ohio, bringing eponymous water and baseball caps for the people of East Palestine. Vivek Ramaswamy went to New Hampshire and Iowa, battling “globalists” and central bank digital currencies.

Asa Hutchinson, the former Arkansas governor who says he’s getting “closer” to a presidential bid, spent Thursday here, in Tucson’s tomb-quiet convention center. He emceed a “border security summit,” put together by his non-profit, to ask polite questions about immigration enforcement — “should immigration judges be independent of the Department of Justice?” — and pitch polite solutions, no matter if the media was chasing something else.

“It might not get headlines, but it gets the work done,” Hutchinson told Semafor after the half-day conference. If he ran, this would be how – with “more experience, more hands on knowledge, more effective solutions based upon these types of conversations.”

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Of the half-dozen Republicans looking seriously at joining the presidential race, Hutchinson has the longest resume and the least buzz. Early polling has found almost no support for the 72-year old who, before he was governor, led the border and transportation division of a then-new Department of Homeland Security.

“He’s got the résumé, he’s got the qualifications,” said Garrick Taylor, the Phoenix-based policy director for the Border Trade Alliance who joined the crowd in Tucson. “They’re impressive. Whether that matters to voters anymore, I don’t know. I hope it still does.”

Hutchinson’s Strong and Free America has spent nearly $100,000 on digital ads in early states, on the theory that Republicans who learn about him will take him seriously. He’s appeared almost weekly on the Sunday shows that most other Republicans now skip, where he’s asked to criticize Trump — he recently said January 6th “disqualified” him as a candidate — and defend the abortion ban he signed in Little Rock.

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Even in Tucson, Hutchinson’s policy-first, zinger-free approach was an outlier. Former New Mexico Rep. Yvette Herrell and newly elected Arizona Rep. Juan Ciscomani, in attendance for the event, both suggested that the Biden administration was too distracted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Where you’re spending your time up in Europe instead of visiting our border, that just shows they continue to miss it,” Ciscomani told Semafor.

“We spend more money protecting Ukraine’s border than protecting our border,” Herrell told the crowd.

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Hutchinson, breaking with the recent trend even among some of the more pro-Ukraine 2024 candidates, made clear he didn’t see a connection.

“Look, we’re a great country,” said Hutchinson. “We can protect our border here in the United States, and be effective in that, and at the same time, exercise our national security interests overseas. And that’s exactly what we’re doing in Ukraine.”

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David’s view

As they enter the race, Republicans keep getting asked where they differ from Donald Trump, and saying little in response. Even as a rare Republican willing to call out Trump’s election denialism, Hutchinson seems to be running into the same problem, pitching himself as the superior choice on an absolute core Trump issue — border security — without explaining where Trump went wrong.

“The border wall that I saw yesterday — that needs to be restarted,” Hutchinson, who toured the border before the conference, told Semafor. “Obviously, it’s not the complete solution. I think former President Trump tried to portray it as solving every problem in the world.”

But Hutchinson didn’t name any Trump immigration policies that were dead ends or that he wouldn’t try to restore either. Nor did he critique his results: There was no mention of the stubbornly high number of border crossings under Trump, which shot up further under President Biden. Hutchinson embraced one new (for him) idea in Tucson: That Mexican drug cartels should be designated as terrorist organizations.

“Maybe that’s not flashy, but it’s news,” he said.

Hutchinson and other 2024 names seem to hope voters will reward them for their quiet competence and long resumes — you could have Trump again, yes, but what about a seasoned former George W. Bush official? — but there’s not many examples of that pitch standing out lately.

I was struck at how Ramaswamy, a biotech multimillionaire with zero political experience, had tweeted a more dramatic spin on the same topic — arming Mexico to “decimate the drug cartels” and showing the country’s president that “there’s a new daddy in town.” Which approach was more interesting to primary voters, brashness or a sober solutions rollout? The answer in the last few GOP primaries was pretty clear.

As the event wrapped up, and Hutchinson talked about the “divisive” politics preventing a real immigration policy breakthrough, I also thought about how those politics played out in Arizona last year. Did he think that Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs really won last year’s election over Kari Lake, the Trump enthusiast who called her an “open-borders globalist leftist” and has since refused to concede?

“I think Governor Ducey handled that very well,” said Hutchinson. “He recognized the new governor and helped her transition.”

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Room for Disagreement

In the Arkansas Times, Christopher Williams writes that “Hutchinson is about as exciting as dry iceberg lettuce and has all the charisma of a wet rag” but suggests “this may actually be his selling point.” If he can convince voters in Iowa and New Hampshire who are worried about recent Republican losses that a more conciliatory nominee would do better, he might have a chance to build some momentum, especially in a split field. “It is a narrow path that could get crowded quickly. But if things break right, it is a definite path,” he writes.

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