WASHINGTON -- As former Vice President Mike Pence addressed a gathering of Christian political activists at the Washington Hilton on Friday, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson watched from a dark corner of the hotel's ballroom.
Hutchinson and Pence know each other. Both served together briefly in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2001; Pence began his first term that year, with Hutchinson leaving the chamber in October to join George W. Bush's administration. Pence served as Indiana's governor from January 2013 to January 2017, ending his tenure to become vice president, while Hutchinson took office as governor in Little Rock in January 2015.
Hutchinson and Pence are back in each other's company, this time as rival candidates for the Republican Party presidential nomination.
"Mike Pence is a friend," Hutchinson told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Friday. "I respect him, I love him, and he's been a fellow governor. I wanted to hear some of what he had to say, and he fires a crowd up."
The Faith and Freedom Coalition began its Road to Majority 2023 summit Thursday with multiple Republican leaders and presidential candidates making appearances. Alongside Hutchinson and Pence, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis delivered remarks in hopes of energizing possible supporters.
Former President Donald Trump and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley are scheduled to appear at the summit today.
"We will welcome these candidates today and tomorrow with open arms, and we will treat them with courtesy and respect," coalition chairman Ralph Reed said Friday.
"We live by the rule at Faith and Freedom, the Ronald Reagan principle, that somebody that you ... agree with 80% of the time is not a 20% enemy; they're an 80% friend."
Hutchinson officially entered the presidential race two months ago with a kickoff event in Bentonville. A self-described "consistent conservative," Hutchinson has touted his public service experience, including time as a U.S. attorney, a member of Congress, and a top official within the federal Department of Homeland Security.
"My faith has always guided me in the public arena, and I have been fighting for our values that we believe in -- for faith and freedom -- since I got involved as a young lawyer in our community," the former governor told summit attendees.
The gathering coincided with the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court stripping the nationwide right to abortion services. Following the Supreme Court's decision to overturn the Roe v. Wade precedent, a statewide abortion ban in Arkansas went into effect. State lawmakers passed the law in 2019 with exceptions concerning the mother's life in cases of emergency.
"Thanks to you and your education [and] your advocacy, we have won that battle at the Supreme Court," Hutchinson said during his remarks.
Hutchinson touted his anti-abortion record before attendees, citing Arkansas' placement at the top of Americans United for Life's annual list of states with abortion restrictions. He additionally mentioned his support for dedicating $1 million to nonprofit pregnancy resource centers supporting abortion alternatives.
"As governor of Arkansas for eight years, let me tell you it was my honor to sign over 30 pro-life bills," Hutchinson said.
The summit also provided space for speakers to tout efforts targeting transgender youth and athletes. These remarks came amid LGBTQ+ organizations alarmed about legislation in statehouses targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Americans -- including prohibitions on gender-affirming medical care -- and the current political climate.
Hutchinson noted his support of Arkansas' measure prohibiting transgender girls and women from joining sports teams matching their gender identity and opposition to an Obama administration directive instructing public schools to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms aligned with their gender.
"God created two genders, and children should not be confused on this. But if there is confusion, parents -- not the government -- should guide the children," Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson criticized allowing minors to receive gender-affirming medical care. As governor, he vetoed legislation banning such treatment for children because of the effects on children receiving care.
Republican legislators overrode Hutchinson's veto, starting a legal battle over the law. A federal judge struck down the ban Tuesday, ruling the statute violates the First Amendment rights of medical providers and the due process rights of transgender children and their families.
Speaking with the Democrat-Gazette, Hutchinson recognized the importance of culture war issues among Republican voters but emphasized the importance of economic issues, such as lowering interest rates.
"You've got to talk about things that people care about, which is our culture, but it's how you address it," he said.
"I believe our biggest impact on the culture is through our families, through our houses of worship, and that's a fine distinction between some of the candidates. You don't always have to use governmental power to make sure we can have our culture move in the right direction."
The Republican primary has grown since Hutchinson officially entered the race April 26 with multiple candidates seeking to serve as the alternative choice to former President Donald Trump. Hutchinson has been critical of Trump since the former president repeatedly made false statements concerning the 2020 presidential election, later describing the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol as a disqualifying factor.
Pence simultaneously spoke fondly of his time as Trump's vice president while calling for change not just in the White House with President Joe Biden, but the Republican Party with Trump as its leading figure.
"I'll always be grateful for what President Donald Trump did for this country. It was a privilege to serve at his side," Pence said. "The president and I had our differences and we have them still, but the election is about the future. I believe different times call for different leadership."
Trump remains the overwhelming choice among Republicans with DeSantis a distant second. Hutchinson, who has polled around 1%, said it is important to remember the amount of time until voters make their choice; the Iowa Republican caucus -- the first caucus contest in the presidential primary process -- is set for next February.
Before traveling to the nation's capital, Hutchinson made multiple stops in Iowa and New Hampshire, which hosts the first primary election.
"We've got to make our case every day, and the voters are responding to that," he said. "I'll think they'll continue to."
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is another Republican presidential candidate critical of Trump. Much like Hutchinson, Christie spent part of the week in New Hampshire to make his case for being the GOP's pick for the White House, even making an appearance at the famed Red Arrow Diner in Manchester before Hutchinson.
As Hutchinson was speaking to reporters, Christie walked behind Hutchinson and playfully grabbed the Arkansan's shoulders.
"Keep listening to him. He's a good man," Christie said, promising to call Hutchinson over the weekend.