OPINION: Asa Hutchinson warns GOP is “headed toward a cliff.’

You get the feeling that Asa Hutchinson could have won the GOP nomination for president in the Before Times, namely before a reality TV star named Donald Trump hit the scene and upended what it means to be a Republican in America.

Hutchinson is a former federal prosecutor, member of Congress, and popular two-term Republican governor of Arkansas. He finished his second term as governor in 2023 and, with the timing just right, spent the next year running for president.

But on Monday night, Hutchinson finished with just 0.2% of the vote in the Iowa Caucuses. He dropped out of the presidential race the next day. His strategic error, he said, was telling Republican voters what they needed to hear.

“We’re headed toward a cliff, and we’re going to go off that cliff because Donald Trump cannot attract independent voters,” Hutchinson said in an interview from Arkansas this week. “It’s very clear he’s not going to expand the base with the rhetoric that he has.”

He said the GOP is “in a battle for its soul,” and at the moment, Donald Trump is winning. “But telling what is needed is not always a guarantee you’re going to win votes.”

Telling voters what is needed is, in fact, usually a guarantee that you’ll lose an election, and that’s exactly what happened in Iowa. But Hutchinson didn’t just leave the race with a warning that Trump would lose. He began his campaign telling Republicans that the former president shouldn’t be in the race in the first place.

That’s what he said in Columbus this summer at one of the hundreds of campaign events he did across the country.

“Staying in the race does a disservice to the office of the presidency and to the country,” Hutchinson of Trump then, days after he was indicted under the Espionage Act for his handling of classified documents.

Hutchinson had been a breakfast speaker at the Georgia GOP convention that day, filling a room with hundreds of Republicans happy to hear his message. His wife was born in Grady Hospital, he told them, and grew up in Atlanta.

After policy-focused remarks on closing the southern border, fighting drug trafficking, and expanding health care, he got a round of warm applause. But it was no comparison to the crowd five times the size that showed up for Trump’s keynote speech later in the day.

By the time the Iowa caucuses rolled around six months later, Hutchinson had become less a guest at the GOP party as a skunk at their picnic, the result of his continuing habit of “telling what is needed.”

He was the only remaining candidate to rule out giving Trump a pardon if he’s convicted on any of the 91 felonies he’s facing. ”I believe promising a pardon during a campaign undermines our justice system,” he told a group of GOP voters in Des Moines last week.

He was also the only candidate to emphasize the concepts of conservatism, character and remaining calm in a crisis. Those are usually tenants of leadership in any setting, except the GOP presidential race where Trump is dominating by running in the opposite direction.

Hutchinson said he understands Trump’s appeal, even to evangelicals and business leaders, but he doesn’t agree with it.

“The 51% of evangelicals who support Trump made a bargain that the results are more important than how you get there,” he said. “I just go in a different direction. I think character counts.”

The demise of Hutchinson’s campaign, along with those of former Vice President Mike Pence and former Gov. Chris Christie, raises the question of what it means to be a Republican now if speaking out against an indicted former president is a one-way ticket to defeat.

All three would have been top-tier candidates before. Now the only two contenders remaining against Trump, former Gov. Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, are the ones who soft-pedaled their criticism of him all year.

“Haley and DeSantis have been hitting him harder in the last couple of weeks,” he said. “But it’s really too late, once you have promised a pardon and once you’ve spent six months being soft in your approach about risks ahead.”

Hutchinson packed up his car Tuesday and drove home from Iowa to Arkansas with his wife, his dog, and his cat. The campaign team and staff are gone, so he picked his phone up himself when I called.

He’s hopeful that his party could return to being “a principles-based party” again — after Trump is gone.

“That’s partly because people are weary of the drama of Donald Trump’s style and the chaos he creates,” he said. “And because no one can create chaos like he does.”

One unexpected positive note of the campaign came this week — from Democrats — after he had already dropped out. When the Democratic National Committee issued a statement mocking his sixth-place finish, White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zeints called to apologize for the stunt.

“It was a recognition that something crossed the line and a simple statement saying, ‘That’s wrong, it shouldn’t happen,’” he said. “That helps to redefine what we can be and what we need to be in this political environment.”

Looking back, Hutchinson said he’s got no regrets. Looking ahead, he said, “I’m not going to support a convicted felon.”

What about someone indicted on 91 felony counts? “Let’s see how that develops,” he said. He’s hoping for a different GOP nominee. But on that and many other things lately, Hutchison and the base of his Republican party don’t seem to agree.