When Asa Hutchinson first ran for statewide office in Arkansas in 1986, the 35-year-old, Reagan-appointed U.S. attorney signed up for an unwinnable David-versus-Goliath contest against Sen. Dale Bumpers, a popular Democrat. Hutchinson lost in a wipeout, but the campaign marked a step forward for a promising political career. Since then, though, another two Arkansas-wide losses have followed.
Hutchinson, now 63 and accompanied on the trail by his grandkids, is back for a fourth statewide run in the Arkansas gubernatorial race. And after three misses, the former U.S. House member finally appears positioned to win. Polls show Hutchinson with a consistent lead over Democratic opponent Mike Ross, and the work Hutchinson put in building the underdog state Republican Party in the '90s has since blossomed, potentially resulting in total GOP control of state government next year.
For both the state party and its standard bearer, it's been a long time coming.
"It's certainly looking like a magical hour for him finally," said Janine Parry, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas.
Former Arkansas Republican Party executive director Clint Reed half-joked that Hutchinson has "grown older, he has a few more gray hairs, he's probably slowed down a little bit." But both Reed and Hutchinson's campaign manager Jon Gilmore say Hutchinson's politics haven't really changed.
"He was conservative in 1986, he's conservative in 2014," Gilmore said. "What has become more conservative is the state of Arkansas."
Hutchinson lost bids for Senate, attorney general, and governor in 1986, 1990, and 2006 respectively, during years when Democrats still had a solid handle on local offices and Republicans suffered rough midterm losses across the board.
This year it's Democrats who are hurting from the national political environment and continue to bleed support in-state among white, rural, and independent voters who increasingly identify as Republican, and the Democrats' loss is Hutchinson's gain. Hutchinson can take credit for some of that shift thanks to campaign work from two decades ago. As the cochairman of the state GOP during Bill Clinton's last years as governor and first years as president, Hutchinson helped build the foundation for Republicans' gains throughout Arkansas over the next 20 years, some of which he spent in Congress and the executive branch.
Hutchinson's "got folks supporting him this go-round that probably voted against him in previous races," Gilmore said
Observers also say that while the state has shifted, Hutchinson has evolved as a candidate, too. Jay Barth, chair of the politics department at Hendrix College, thinks there's been a noticeable shift in Hutchinson's approach since his last race in 2006, when he lost to Democratic state Attorney General Mike Beebe, who is term-limited as governor.
"He was a little bit harder-edged guy, a little more obviously ideological than he has been in this race," Barth said.
Among other things, Hutchinson is supporting a November ballot measure to increase the state minimum wage and more funding for early childhood education in 2014, two proposals that have been favorites of Democrats around the country.
Hutchinson also aired one of the year's most innovative TV ads targeting women. The spot features his school-aged granddaughter Ella Beth, an enterprising young computer programmer, who helps him tout a plan to put computer science classes in every high school and help more Arkansas women compete for tech jobs.
Meanwhile, time may have helped rehabilitate Hutchinson's family name with voters a bit.
Hutchinson's older brother, former Sen. Tim Hutchinson, lost to Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor in 2002 after a highly publicized divorce and subsequent marriage to a staffer. During Asa's 2006 run for governor, "some people made a lot of the conflation of the brothers, and Tim's marital problems," Parry said. "A little more distance from that hasn't hurt Asa."
Finally, there may just be something to be said for achieving political longevity through losing. Skip Rutherford, the dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, said it's possible voters are simply more comfortable with Hutchinson now after seeing him out on the political circuit for so many years. That congenial familiarity isn't something everyone can achieve after a string of tough losses.
"He's not been a bombastic loser," Rutherford said. "He's not filed lawsuits like Chris McDaniel in Mississippi. He's accepted defeat with grace."
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