BENTONVILLE -- Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson officially launched his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination Wednesday, emphasizing his public office experience in hopes of setting himself apart from current and future opponents.
Hutchinson, 72, had announced his intentions of running for president in a television interview earlier this month, ending months of speculation regarding his political future.
"If you look at our history, the United States of America has been challenged in every generation, from threats abroad to civil unrest at home. And yet, when we are tested, we grow stronger," Hutchinson said before approximately 400 people outside the Benton County Courthouse.
"We have learned that in times of turmoil, uncertainty and division, America has always benefited from leaders who challenge us and give us hope."
The Benton County Courthouse is an important location in Hutchinson's political career. More than three decades ago, he launched his first campaign for public office, entering the 1986 U.S. Senate race against Democratic incumbent Dale Bumpers.
Running as a Republican in a period when Democrats dominated state politics, Hutchinson lost to Bumpers in a landslide, with Bumpers carrying 62.3% of the vote compared to Hutchinson's 37.7% share. Yet Hutchinson didn't fade away.
He lost the state attorney general race in 1990, but became leader of the state's Republican Party that same year. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1996 and served before joining George W. Bush's administration in 2001. Hutchinson lost his 2006 gubernatorial bid, but bounced back eight years later to become Arkansas' 46th governor, with Republicans taking control of other executive officers and the General Assembly.
"I continued to fight the Establishment and over time, guess what? We won," Hutchinson said to applause.
"That was the beginning, and since then I have been a consistent conservative through my time as leader of the party, in the United States Congress and as governor. And now, I bring that same vigor to fight in another battle, and that battle is for the future of our country and the soul of our party."
Hutchinson's entrance comes with challenges within and outside his party. Former President Donald Trump remains the dominating force in the GOP, and Democratic President Joe Biden has his eyes on 2024 as well, having launched his re-election campaign Tuesday.
Yet Hutchinson is hopeful voters recognize the strength of his political background. The former governor used his speech Wednesday to highlight his government experience to contrast his record with the Biden administration.
"From Congress to DEA to [the Department of] Homeland Security, I have served our country in times of crisis," he said.
Hutchinson's final years as governor involved leading Arkansas during the coronavirus pandemic. While Hutchinson ordered the closure of some businesses and ordered schools to move to virtual instruction at the pandemic's start, he oversaw a loosening of many restrictions by the end of the pandemic's first year.
"When I had pressure from Washington and the national media to shelter in place, I said, 'No,'" he said. "The result was that our businesses survived and prospered, and we had more days of in-classroom instruction in our schools during the pandemic than almost any other state."
"Yes, that's right," Hutchinson added with a smile. "We beat Florida and Texas."
Hutchinson has focused the first goal of his proposed administration on the economy. He called on the federal government to address inflation and rising interest rates by passing a balanced budget, making his argument as the U.S. House of Representatives debated raising the debt ceiling.
"I have been chief executive of our state for eight years, and that means I know how to balance a budget. I did it every single year," he said. "While I was in Congress, we balanced the federal budget, and it is high time we did it again."
Hutchinson left Congress in August 2021 to join President George W. Bush's administration. Bush nominated Hutchinson to serve as DEA director and later as undersecretary for border and transportation security. The responsibilities of his latter role involved overseeing the nation's transportation systems and immigration system.
Hutchinson, on Wednesday, called on increased resources for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and additional actions targeting organizations responsible for bringing fentanyl into the United States. He also voiced support for changing asylum laws for individuals taking the legal immigration path.
The former governor voiced disapproval of the Biden administration's handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, arguing America "looked weak" as troops left the country in August 2021 amid chaotic scenes.
"That weakness was seen as an opportunity for Russia to invade Ukraine and then for China to threaten and be aggressive toward Taiwan," Hutchinson said. "Let me assure you that as president, I will bring out the best of America."
Not mentioned during Hutchinson's speech was Trump, the most recent Republican president. Hutchinson has not shied away from condemnations of Trump. While he supported Trump's policies, the former governor pushed back against Trump's claims involving the 2020 presidential election. The January 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol, according to Hutchinson, should disqualify Trump from serving a second term.
Hutchinson also called on Trump to drop out of the presidential race after the former president's indictment related to an alleged hush money payment for sexual encounters. Following his innocent plea, Trump suggested cutting funding for the Department of Justice and the FBI "until they come to their senses."
"There are a few misguided leaders who say we should defund law enforcement, we should defund the FBI. I am here today in support of our law enforcement heroes," Hutchinson said Wednesday.
"The argument to defund police is designed to undermine our rule of law. We should not defund the police, we should not defund the FBI, but we do need serious reform to refocus the core functions of our federal law enforcement."
Former South Carolina governor and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and radio host Larry Elder have announced their bids for the Republican nomination. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott has formed an exploratory committee regarding a potential run, and former Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have emerged as possible candidates.
Susan Hutchinson, Arkansas' former first lady, has stood by her husband as he pursued his political career. Becoming president, she said, would be an opportunity for him to serve "one more time in a very special way."
"I really think with his long-suffering patience and insight and wisdom that he really is the man of the hour, the man for these tumultuous times that we are in," she told supporters.
Mike Preston, Arkansas' commerce secretary under Hutchinson, said Hutchinson's leadership skills were on display during the former governor's eight years in Little Rock. Preston specifically mentioned Hutchinson's ability to promote Arkansas' economic potential and ability to build relationships with business leaders.
"Timing is everything," Preston said. "It's been a long time coming, but I think everyone in this crowd knew that one day, we would all be here with you as you announce your candidacy for president. And I'm proud to be up here today to help get that started."
Above the Benton County Courthouse's main doors is a message set into the building: "Sovereignty rests with the people."
Those words were not lost on Hutchinson, who pointed them out while closing his speech.
"This means that you will decide the direction of our nation," he told those in the crowd. "The fate of the world's greatest democracy is in your hands."