Back in the days when Asa Hutchinson was the youngest U.S. attorney in the nation, appointed by a gentleman named Ronald Reagan, there was a little group of terrorist thugs operating in Arkansas known as The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord. The group was building up quite a stockpile of arms and extremist views, ran in the same circles as the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nation and harbored men wanted in connection with murder.
Their activities drew the attention of law enforcement, leading to a four-day standoff at a compound near the Arkansas-Missouri line. Hutchinson, who would go on to prosecute some of the group’s members, put on a bullet-resistant vest and walked into the compound to negotiate its bloodless end.
What’s the point?
Gov. Asa Hutchinson may have a battle on his hands for the heart of Arkansas Republican Party. We hope he wins it.
Lots of Arkansans know that story. It drew national attention on Hutchinson, who was in his early 30s. He’s run for U.S. senator against Dale Bumpers back when Arkansas was pretty safely a Democratic state. He lost. He lost again, to Democrat Winston Bryant, in a Republican campaign to be Arkansas attorney general (oh, if only we had such a candidate today.)
Then he chaired the Arkansas Republican Party, where he built up the party in the face of long odds, then ran for Congress to represent Northwest Arkansas (he hails from the cornerstone of the state Republican Party, Benton County). As a congressman, he served as a GOP House manager presenting the impeachment case against his fellow Arkansan, President Bill Clinton. He’s been the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration and a top leader of the Department of Homeland Security, appointed by President George W. Bush in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.
And he’s led a National Rifle Association task force looking into school safety standards.
Why the retrospective on our governor? Well, it’s clear evidence he’s a liberal.
That, dear reader, is what’s known as a joke. But to hear from some in the Arkansas GOP – maybe they’re outliers or maybe they are the future of this party – Hutchinson simply isn’t conservative enough. Never mind that Hutchinson was advancing the cause of conservatism when a lot of his critics couldn’t be found in Democratic Arkansas.
Hutchinson is feeling the condemnation, too. He’s got a far-right opponent in the governor’s race, one that would be a disaster as the state’s chief executive. And, as he suggested during a talk with a central Arkansas Political Animals Club, there’s a collection of political action groups based in Northwest Arkansas determined to drive reasonable Republicans out of office, to be replaced with uncompromising, single-minded lawmakers who believe government itself to be the enemy.
Hutchinson, typically the unifier, has apparently had enough of it. His target is a collection of political action groups founded by Fayetteville businessman Joe Maynard and attorney Brenda Vassaur-Taylor. In recent elections, those groups have spent money supporting candidates who, according to Vassaur-Taylor, support “smaller government, less spending and less corruption.” That’s largely turned into support for state-level candidates who oppose the state’s version of Medicaid expansion known as Arkansas Works.
“Right now, our state has a special interest group in Northwest Arkansas that is controlled by one person who is using various conduits, including a media arm, to pump tens of thousands of dollars in order to control legislators,” Hutchinson said, making a reference to Maynard. “This is not good for our state or for the body politic.”
“Their goal is to push as narrow an agenda of isolating our state, limiting its growth and shutting down government, so you can expect me to be engaged in that political fight as needed because we don’t need our legislators controlled by anyone, except for the people of their district,” Hutchinson told last week’s luncheon attendees.
It’s not the first time incumbents have taken note of a battle within the Republican Party. State Sen. Jim Hendren of Sulphur Springs, back in 2015, spoke to an audience that included Maynard.
“These ads and social media messages are untrue and hurt our party, and the people who make them need to own those words,” Hendren told the crowd. Later, he added, “If you want somebody who agrees with you 100 percent of the time, you want a puppet.”
We don’t fault anyone for their political ideologies and a desire to wield influence within the political arena. But we do want government to continue representing what our Founding Fathers intended, a place where representatives of the disparate places around the state – and regarding Congress, around the nation – can come together, engage in reasoned debate and develop compromises that all can view as progress.
The United States, despite the oft-stated perspective of the Oval Office’s current occupant, has never been a “my way or the highway” kind of place, and it doesn’t need to be. Arkansas doesn’t need a Legislature full of intractable radicals of the left or of the right or nothing will get done.
Sometimes, that seems to be the desired outcome from the fringes.
It’s unusual for a sitting governor, at least in recent history, to get involved in races farther down the ballot. But Hutchinson knows there’s a battle for the heart of the party he’s devoted much of his life toward building. When a leader has faced down armed extremists, standing up to elements within his own party probably doesn’t seem that difficult. But there certainly can be a political price for such criticisms.
We like a governor with the gumption to lay it all out there for conservative values that grasp the reality of Arkansas’ needs, not the kind rooted in “no.”
Arkansas can ill-afford the development of a stronger “no” caucus in the halls of the State Capitol. Political leaders need to represent their end of the political spectrum, but they should not abandon the middle because that’s where most Arkansans reside.