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Top One Magazine

‘New Hampshire Is Close to a Make-or-Break for Keeping the Nomination Out of Donald Trump’s Hands.’

It was hardly surprising to see the Democratic National Committee snarkily mock Asa Hutchinson when he abandoned his longshot presidential campaign this week, calling it “a shock to those of us who could’ve sworn he had already dropped out.”

But what was surprising was that the White House felt compelled to apologize swiftly — and that Jeff Zients, the White House chief of staff, reached out personally to the former Arkansas governor to do it.

Of all the constituencies President Joe Biden needs to worry about, Hutchinson’s following — totaling 191 Iowa caucusgoers on Monday, or 0.2 percent of the vote — hardly tops the list. And it’s not like Hutchinson is about to go out campaigning for the Democratic president, regardless of how critical he’s been of Biden’s likely general election opponent, Donald Trump.

When I asked him what it would take for him even to vote for Biden, Hutchinson told me, “That’s not going to happen.”

But if Hutchinson isn’t gettable for Biden in November, Democrats are counting on the idea that a lot of other people like him might be — traditionalist Republicans and independent voters who find Trump intolerable and who, as many independents did in 2020, could be persuaded to cast a ballot for Biden instead.

The 73-year-old former member of Congress and U.S. attorney had pitched himself to voters as an experienced, conservative alternative to Trump, saying he would not “support somebody who’s been convicted of a serious felony or who is disqualified under our Constitution.”

But he’d also seen first-hand in Iowa this week how far that got him. When he dropped out of the primary after the caucuses — “driving back to Arkansas,” as he put it — he acknowledged “my message of being a principled Republican with experience and telling the truth about the current front runner did not sell in Iowa.”

Even Hutchinson, when I called him up, would not say unequivocally that he won’t vote for Trump — only that he expects Trump to be convicted before November, and that he will not vote for a convicted nominee. But he does think that his sunny brand of conservatism was still the future of his party, and that Trump’s hold on its base will loosen, maybe even in the coming year.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

What did Zients say to you when he reached out?

He just simply said the comment was totally out of line, and he apologized for it. And that was pretty much his communication. Of course, my response is, “I’m used to that in the political arena, even though it was uncalled for.” And I said, “It was awfully gracious of you to call, and I appreciate it.” And that was pretty much the end of it until the White House communications director released that information, and then it became a little bit bigger story.

Why do you think it was important to the White House to let that be known?

I take it at face value that they thought it was wrong, and they wanted to make sure I understood that it was wrong, and they didn’t have anything to do with it. Now, on a more personal level, I know Jeff. I worked with him when I was head of the National Governors Association and he was the head of the coronavirus task force for the president. So, we’ve had a working relationship. So, all of that might’ve played into it. I don’t know. I think we just have to take it at face value.

The fact that the White House responded to it is a good thing. It took, not ownership of it, but took steps to correct it. I think this wound up being a good moment for America because after that was made public, and then I had to respond to it, and obviously they apologized, I accepted that, and we moved on. And I said, “We can fight for our beliefs without demonizing each other.” And the response to that has been extraordinary, and I think it’s a good moment for American politics that you’ve got two people on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but have respect and can showcase that. That’s a good thing.

You endorsed Trump in 2020. What would it take for you to vote for Zients’ boss, for Biden, this year?

That’s not going to happen. No, I’ve made it clear all along. I ran for president believing that Biden’s policy is not the best for America. I’m not voting for Joe Biden for president.

If Trump is the Republican nominee this year, what will you do?

Well, I don’t want to get ahead of the game, because I’m hopeful that there will be a different nominee, and I think it really depends upon what happens in New Hampshire in less than a week. I’ve said that I’m not going to support a nominee who has a felony conviction, and I expect someone other than Donald Trump to be the nominee. Although after Iowa, that could be called into question, but I hope that’s the case.

Do you plan to endorse a primary opponent?

Not at this point. We’ll see how it develops, but not at this point. I want to give a chance for the dust to settle and for Nikki [Haley] to make her case in New Hampshire. And since Ron [DeSantis] has apparently pulled out, she should have a full opportunity to do that.

When we spoke a little less than a year ago in California, you told me you thought your lane in the party was getting bigger, the non-Trump — not the anti-Trump — the non-Trump lane of the party, and that people were ready to move on. Given what you saw in Iowa, what happened? 

Well, what happened is people bought into Trump’s grievances and anger and a belief that he’s been unfairly persecuted. So, that dynamic has changed and strengthened Donald Trump, and I would say that’s probably the key factor right there.

Do you see any prospect of the party reversing that?

I make the case that as we progress through this year, that voters are going to take a fresh look at the facts. They’re going to think through whether he can win in November. And so, yes, I think time is not in Donald Trump’s favor. Time is not in Donald Trump’s favor. That’s why he’s working so hard to wrap his nomination up quickly, putting pressure on everyone to get in his camp, to make sure the RNC is doing its job and paving the way. And if he can’t wrap it up quickly, it’s the kind of thing that can unravel on him.

Do you think it could unravel quickly enough to prevent him from becoming the nominee? And how quickly would it have to unravel for that to happen? 

Well, that’s the problem. His strategy is, wrap up the nomination quickly. And then secondly, delay the court cases and accountability as long as possible. And thus far he’s been successful in that.

I really believe that New Hampshire is close to a make-or-break for keeping the nomination out of Donald Trump’s hands. Because if Donald Trump wins significantly in New Hampshire like he did in Iowa, then you’ve got Nevada, and Nevada’s in his camp already. They’ve moved to a caucus. And then you’ve got South Carolina, where he leads, and there won’t be momentum for Nikki at that point even going into South Carolina. And then you’ve got Super Tuesday. So, New Hampshire’s pretty important to reverse the trend that we’re on right now.

You said in your exit statement that your “message of being a principled Republican with experience and telling the truth about the current frontrunner did not sell in Iowa.” Do you think that it sells anywhere in the modern Republican Party?

Yes. The truth about Trump will prove important in the long term, even though it proved detrimental in the short term. And I think it’ll be next year. But it’s critically important that someone sound the alarm. And clearly that wasn’t a message that Iowans that supported Donald Trump wanted to hear, and it didn’t move them. I think down the road, it will have more impact. Obviously, I’m not in that Republican primary anymore, but those warnings that I articulated will be more important and meaningful as this year goes on.

Do you have a future in this party?

Well, the answer is yes. But it’s interesting. On caucus night, I actually spoke to one of the largest caucuses, in Clive. And I was followed by Donald Trump, although I didn’t know he was following me. But as I made my case, I made my normal stump speech, but I ended it by saying, “I get asked the question a lot by the media as to whether there’s room in the Republican Party for a Reagan Republican who is principled and applies those principles to the future. And I ask you tonight to send a message that, yes, there is room in the Republican Party for a principled Reagan conservative.” Well, obviously that didn’t win them over. So, the answer is, I don’t know.

But clearly, when you’re looking at Trump getting 51 percent of the vote, obviously there’s 49 percent of the Republican base that is looking for an alternative, that believes in broader principles and character being an important factor as to the presidency of the United States. So, I’m hopeful. I’m always hopeful.

What do you think needs to happen for you or a Republican like you to be more successful next time?

Well, this year — and I think there’s a significant chance it will happen — that the Republican Party will have to abandon Donald Trump because they will recognize that he is harmful to the body politic, that he will ruin our chances of winning. He’s detrimental to our principles and our cause.

Looking back, are you glad you did this? Was it worth it?

Oh, a hundred percent. I mean, first, you’ve asked me questions that draw out some negativity. But listen, I love the people of Iowa. I think that they are clearly wanting our democracy to work. They want solutions. They want to see Washington work, and they’re committed, and they pay attention. And this has been one of the greatest experiences of my life, both campaigning in New Hampshire and Iowa, and across the country. And so, people give me optimism that in the end, they’re going to make good decisions. And the burden falls on me to make my case. We didn’t make it effectively. But if you ask me, “Am I glad I did it?” Absolutely. Would I change anything? I certainly wouldn’t change my message. There’s some tactical things I think I could do better. But I spoke my convictions and the truth, and that still counts in America.

Do you think you might run again?

I would be very, very doubtful that that would happen. I would say that I’m not burned out. I have an extraordinary amount of energy. I’m going to get out and work and hopefully replenish the till, and rebuild our family budget. I mean, all of those are priorities for me. But if anything, having run this race for president makes me more committed and more determined to try to correct things.

I remember you saying at the top of our conversation that you would not vote for Joe Biden. Did you also say you wouldn’t vote for Trump?

No, I said I would not vote for a convicted felon.

If he’s not convicted, would you vote for him? 

I can’t imagine that circumstance, but I do expect to support the Republican nominee. I’ve said that publicly. I’ve always supported the Republican nominee, and if that changes down the road, I’ll let you know.

You expect Trump to be convicted this year, before the November election?

Yes, yes. I do. As you can see, he’s being successful in postponing some of these trials. And so, I don’t know when that’s going to be. It could even be after the convention, but what a mess we’re going to have then.

So, you won’t support a convicted nominee. But if Trump is not convicted, then could you support him? 

I would not commit at this point to support him. You’re asking me a lot of questions as we don’t know how this plays out. And, again, I do believe that the Republican base is going to swing back to an alternative position. I just don’t know when that’s going to be. Still hopeful there’ll be somebody other than Donald Trump as the nominee. We’ll cross those bridges when we get to them.

If the Republican Party doesn’t do that this year, do you think that will happen in the future?

Yes. It’ll just be a longer curve. But the pendulum does swing and, and what Donald Trump offers — fighting for his personal ego versus the common good — is not sustainable in our democracy. And so, yeah, I believe it will swing back. It’s just a question of when.

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Author: POLITICO