Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday (March 2) that Donald Trump must be more of a “presidential” leader, that Tuesday’s election results represented a big win for his Arkansas Works health care program, and the infusion of so-called “dark money” in the state Supreme Court races proved the need to change the way “how we elect or select” justices.
Speaking to the Political Animals social club at the Governor’s Mansion Wednesday, Hutchinson said Trump “was a winner yesterday” after the businessman won primaries in Arkansas and six other states.
“I do not believe he closed the deal yesterday, but he moved closer to closing the deal,” he said.
Hutchinson, who backs third place finisher U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Trump has proven he can speak to voters’ frustrations with Washington, D.C., and he can generate media attention, but he must now show he can offer presidential leadership.
“If he shifts his demeanor, if he shifts his structure, his comments, his discipline so that he can come across and show that he can lead not just America but he can also lead the Republican Party, then you will see more of the establishment saying he will be an acceptable nominee,” he said. “If he continues down a divisive path, then there’ll be greater concern about the down ticket races, governor races and Senate races, and what’s that going to do impacting those candidates.”
Hutchinson has said he will support the Republican Party nominee, even if it’s Trump. Asked by Political Animals president Rex Nelson if he would actively campaign for Trump, Hutchinson jokingly said, “We’ll see. I have a state to run” and then said he would work hard to have the party’s best nominee.
He later told reporters that Trump must “convince more of the mainstream of the Republican Party that he can be a serious debater of the issues against Hillary Clinton in November. He’s got to conduct himself in a way that we believe he’s going to represent us well on the world stage.”
Asked if he had faith Trump would do that, he said, “I don’t know the answer to that, but he has demonstrated an ability to be disciplined at times. It only lasts a while. And so we’ll just have to wait and see, but I do think that is the burden on his shoulders, and I think he has an opportunity if he seizes that moment.”
‘COMMON SENSE’ ELECTION OUTCOME
Hutchinson said the elections were “a victory for common sense in legislating” because Arkansans re-elected six legislators who had voted in support of Hutchinson’s Medicaid expansion initiatives in races where they faced opponents who opposed the expansion.
“Perhaps figuratively, I was on the ballot in some races,” he said.
Last year, Hutchinson persuaded legislators to vote to continue the private option, which uses Medicaid dollars to purchase private insurance for adults with incomes of up to 138% of the federal poverty level, through 2016 while an alternative was created with help from a legislative task force. Hutchinson has been pushing that alternative, which he is calling “Arkansas Works,” and will call a special session in April to pass it into existence.
Hutchinson held a news conference Feb. 16 defending those legislators. His political action committee, ASA PAC, donated $5,400 apiece to eight legislative candidates. Six of them won, including three running in Senate races: two Senate incumbents, Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, and Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock; along with Rep. Lance Eads, R-Springdale.
“I think everybody in this room knows that if those three state senators had lost their race, it would not be a pleasant day for me in this room,” he said. “I would have to be explaining. It would have been considered a referendum on me and my leadership.”
Hutchinson said the victories did not necessarily mean Arkansas Works will pass, but it does mean the program has “a boost of momentum.”
“Arkansas Works was on the ballot in the context of those who believe in providing common sense, practical solutions for Arkansas,” he said.
He later told reporters that, had those legislators lost, other legislators who support Arkansas Works would have been fearful of voting for it lest they be targeted by an opponent.
DARK MONEY PROBLEM
Hutchinson lamented the fact that outside groups had affected the outcomes of the state’s two Supreme Court races. In the chief justice’s race, Circuit Judge Dan Kemp defeated Associate Justice Courtney Goodson, while in the race for associate justice position 5, Circuit Judge Shawn Womack defeated attorney Clark Mason. In both cases, outside groups spent large sums of money in support of Kemp and Womack using anonymously donated “dark money.”
Hutchinson said he hopes the Legislature reforms “how we elect or select” Supreme Court justices in the 2017 regular session. He said he could support a bill like one proposed in 2015 by Rep. Mathew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, that would have created a selection process. He said he had talked to Shepherd and expects him to refile that legislation.
Hutchinson noted that statewide, about 400,000 voted in the GOP primary, compared to 225,000 in 2008. That was a reflection of the interest created in the presidential race as well as the shift toward the Republican Party occurring in Arkansas. He said the high turnout in yesterday’s primary – 633,000 ballots have been cast so far, with three counties not yet fully reporting – showed that moving the primary elections from May to March of this year was a good idea.