Arkansas governor quietly bucking GOP's dive into culture wars

Arkansas Gov. Asa HutchinsonAsa HutchinsonArkansas reports biggest one-day spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations Arkansas governor to ask state legislature to allow masks in schools Judge orders Arkansas to resume pandemic unemployment benefits MORE (R) made headlines this week when he vetoed an anti-transgender health care bill, the latest example of the conservative governor of a red state bucking his party as it wades further into culture wars.

Hutchinson on Monday vetoed a bill passed by the state legislature that blocks doctors from providing transgender youth with medical care such as puberty blockers, hormone therapies and transition-related surgeries. While the legislature overrode the veto on Tuesday, Hutchinson has been clear about his problems with the bill at a time when Republicans in dozens of statehouses are pushing measures that target transgender rights.

Arkansas political observers and insiders say this has become typical for Hutchinson, who is something of a throwback to a more traditionally conservative GOP lawmaker at a time when large swaths of the party have dived into fighting culture wars and tying themselves closely to the Trump wing of the party.

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Multiple Arkansas strategists described Hutchinson as “pragmatic,” and they suggested he is mindful of how his actions might play should he decide to pursue higher office once he leaves the governor’s mansion in January 2023.

“He is term limited so he has a little bit more freedom to maybe do what he wants to do,” said one official with ties to the Arkansas political scene. “From what I’ve heard, he just doesn’t view this as a conservative governing policy. He views it as the government trying to push policies on people’s lives, and it may be a fundamental disagreement between the conservative wing of the party and the more pragmatic wing.”

Hutchinson has not been shy about signing conservative legislation  and drawing the ire of Democrats  during his stint as governor. He signed an amended version of a religious freedom bill in 2015 after a similar measure in Indiana caused an uproar. He signed one of the country’s most restrictive abortion bans earlier this year, saying he hoped it would lead to a ruling on the issue by the Supreme Court.

But the governor has been open about his problems with the bill passed by the legislature restricting access to medical treatment for young transgender people.

“While in some instances the state must act to protect life, the state should not presume to jump into the middle of every medical, human and ethical issue,” he said Monday when vetoing the legislation. “This would be — and is — a vast government overreach.”

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Hutchinson said Tuesday on Fox News that he would have supported a bill that merely prohibited sex reassignment surgeries.

“But this was the first law in the nation that invokes the state between medical decisions, parents who consent to that, and the decision of the patient. And so this goes way too far,” he told Tucker CarlsonTucker CarlsonDon Lemon defends Tucker Carlson amid confrontation video Fox News blasts 'ambush' of Carlson at Montana fly-fishing store Psaki says Biden admin 'needs' Fox News in order to fight vaccine misinformation MORE. “And in fact, it doesn’t even have a grandfather clause that those young people that are under hormonal treatment.”

The state legislature voted on Tuesday to override Hutchinson’s veto, and experts say Arkansas has long trailed the rest of the nation in embracing policies that afford the same rights to the LGBTQ community and other minority groups, including ones as basic as same-sex marriage or the right to adopt.

GOP efforts at the state level to restrict access to sports or medical care for transgender people have picked up momentum this year. As of early March, at least 35 bills had been introduced to ban transgender students from playing sports in leagues that conform to their gender identity. Another 25 bills had been introduced like the one in Arkansas that would prohibit access to gender-affirming medical care, in some cases with criminal punishments for parents who approve the care or doctors who perform it. 

Hutchinson has a well-established track record of pushing back against certain laws he feels overstep the government’s role, and he has generally avoided wading into the cultural fights that have come to consume the GOP.

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He was among the earliest governors in the South to adopt a mask mandate during the coronavirus pandemic even as then-President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden administration to keep Trump-era rule of turning away migrants during pandemic On The Money: Biden, Pelosi struggle with end of eviction ban | Trump attorney says he will fight release of tax returns Lack of transatlantic cooperation on trade threatens global climate change goals MORE scoffed at their usefulness, and he was a regular if under the radar critic of the former president’s rhetoric and pandemic response throughout 2020.

Hutchinson in 2017 successfully pushed a bill ending the state’s practice of celebrating Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on the same day as Martin Luther King Jr. after a similar measure had failed previously.

And in 2019, Hutchinson told The Associated Press he was in favor of changing the meaning of a star on the state flag that highlights the Confederacy, though the flag remains unchanged.

“He's not interested in the culture wars. He's interested in governing, and he's demonstrated that again and again,” said Janine Parry, a professor at the University of Arkansas and the long-time director of the Arkansas Poll.

Parry said it’s unlikely Hutchinson will face any real political consequences for vetoing the anti-transgender rights bill, noting his approval rating has consistently hovered around 70 percent among likely voters.

Hutchinson will be forced out of office due to term limits next year. A GOP primary race is already taking shape, with candidates emphasizing their ties to Trump. Former White House press secretary Sarah HuckabeeSarah SandersTrump expected to resume rallies in June Andrew Giuliani planning run for New York governor Trump appears at Sarah Huckabee Sanders campaign event MORE Sanders is widely considered the front-runner, despite having never held elected office.

Arkansas strategists and observers said Hutchinson has had aspirations for higher office beyond being governor. He is unlikely to run for the House, and Sen. John BoozmanJohn Nichols BoozmanTrump getting tougher for Senate GOP to ignore Former NFL player challenging Boozman in Arkansas GOP primary Senate GOP opens door to earmarks MORE (R-Ark.) has already said he plans to run for reelection in 2022.

A bid for a spot on a presidential ticket or some role in the next Republican administration is not out of the question, officials said. Hutchinson has said he would not support Trump in 2024. Strategists suggested Hutchinson’s efforts to project himself as a more traditional conservative capable of governing could position him to make a national play in the coming years.

“His M.O. has always been to be part of the conversation,” said Michael Cook, a strategist who has worked on multiple Arkansas campaigns, who noted Hutchinson has inserted himself into the national conversation with his veto this week.

“I think, second of all, he is a conservative, but I think he is trying to stake out a national profile,” Cook added. “What he’s staking himself out as is to be part of the conversation, and be a conservative with a little part of moderation that sets you apart from people who are all Trump all the time.”