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GOP hopeful Asa Hutchinson is optimistic that Trump's grip on party will loosen

Former Arkansas Governor and 2024 Republican Presidential hopeful Asa Hutchinson speaks at the Republican Party of Iowa's 2023 Lincoln Dinner on July 28.
Sergio Flores
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AFP via Getty Images
Former Arkansas Governor and 2024 Republican Presidential hopeful Asa Hutchinson speaks at the Republican Party of Iowa's 2023 Lincoln Dinner on July 28.

Former President Donald Trump remains the frontrunner for the Republican 2024 presidential nomination, despite his latest indictment related to efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 vote.

One of Trump's opponents in the GOP primary is former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson. He has been critical of Trump, and has struggled in the polls. He's also struggling to attract enough support to meet the party's requirements to appear on stage at the first Republican presidential debate later this month.

But Hutchinson told NPR he remains optimistic that over the next few months, Trump's grip on the GOP could loosen. Hutchinson spoke with All Things Considered host Scott Detrow.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Scott Detrow: On MSNBC Thursday, you said, quote, "There's a choice. Do you support the rule of law and accountability or do you support Donald Trump and the chaos he brings and the disregard of rule of law?" But you look at the polls and you look at the state of this primary, and it seems to me you could argue that Republican voters have already made that choice and they have chosen Trump. Why do you think that's what it looks like right now?

Asa Hutchinson: Because they perceive that there's been unfairness by the Department of Justice. And it all started with the Durham report that indicated that the investigations by the FBI toward Trump at the beginning were unfair. And then you followed up more recently with the indictment in New York that both sides of the aisle believe was a stretch. And so, you know, they see foundationally that there's some unfairness. And so that overlaps into these more serious indictments now that's being brought at the federal level. But that's the reason there's skepticism about it.

But you yourself are not skeptical of these last two federal indictments, correct?

Well, it's because each each case depends upon its own facts. And so I acknowledge that there's been some problems with the Department of Justice and particular cases. And that's why I propose significant and bold reform of our federal law enforcement. But you've got to look at each case. And, you know, the documents case, obviously, dealing with our national security interest is critical to our country. And then the second one goes to the heart of our democracy. The one that was just brought on the Jan. 6. And I've always said that Donald Trump was morally responsible for what happened on Jan. 6, and now he's been charged with criminal conduct in regard to that. But, you know, I've got to speak to what I see here as this is important for our system of justice, that we get this right, that it's fair, but that no one is above the law and we hold people who violate the law accountable. It's as simple as that to me.

At this point, given everything you said and given the way that the former president has poisoned the well so much when it comes to framing these criminal cases, what, if anything, do you think could get this majority of Republican voters who who are so skeptical to change their mind about these cases, particularly the Jan. 6 case?

Well it starts in Iowa and I'm in Iowa today. And while there's skepticism about the indictment, there's also skepticism about whether Donald Trump can lead us to win in 2024. And so, as the facts come out, those opinions could change. But regardless, there's a dynamic here in Iowa that we've got to move beyond the chaos of Donald Trump and we can't win with it. But it's going to take a leadership on people speaking out and being clear and not just jumping in with Trump's defense that somehow he's being persecuted. People have to stand up against that kind of demagoguery.

Then-Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (left) meets with then-President Donald Trump in May 2020.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Then-Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (left) meets with then-President Donald Trump in May 2020.

Governor, I hear you. And then I see you and a handful of other candidates — I'm thinking about Will Hurd and Chris Christie — being clear and trying to take leadership and going up and speaking about this on stages in Iowa and getting booed. So what's going on here?

Well, I mean, obviously, that's why some some candidates do not jump into this water because they don't want to get booed. But I've been very well received here in Iowa. I was speaking last night and they like the message. You don't go full bore, you know, attacking Trump in this environment, but you have to be honest, straightforward about it. And I'm optimistic that over the course of time, people are going to evaluate the case, but also evaluate the candidates and say we need a new direction.

When you look at the big-picture headlines about this race, it seems like Trump and his criminal cases and his continued focus on the 2020 results have really blotted out the sun of what the primary is about. Is that what you're finding when you are campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire and other early states? What percentage of the one-on-one conversations you're having with voters are about the former president compared to other issues?

Actually, that's what's encouraging. Whether I'm in New Hampshire or in Iowa. You know, the questions that come up are about the Ukraine. It's about what we're going to do about the federal debt. It's about the issues of interest. And so they're not dwelling upon Trump. And so it's not hard in the environment with voters talking about the issues that are important to them. Now, it's harder with the national media because they're focused on this national story. But in the hinterlands of America, it's about the economy.

So you're talking about Republican voters shifting their view over time from being lockstep backing the former president. That is another data point that shows that is something they're very hesitant or reluctant or just not interested in doing. What is the timeline that you're thinking is realistic to start to change those minds before the caucusing begins in January?

We'll see. There is a gradual shift. And what everybody is talking about is they're keeping their powder dry. They're waiting for the debate. They want to evaluate two candidates side by side, and they're wide open as to who they're going to support. So the case is there to be made. The debate is an important part of it. Retail politics is an important part of it. And we've got six months before the Iowa caucuses. We're going to make the most of it. And I think you'll see a shift in thinking between now and then. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong. But that's my hope and belief and and that's why I'm engaging in the debate.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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