- Associated Press - Saturday, October 14, 2017

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - With nearly $1.2 million in the bank and a laundry list of accomplishments he’s touting to Republican voters that include tax cuts and several new abortion restrictions, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson at first glance should be in a comfortable position for the 2018 GOP primary as he ramps up his re-election bid.

But a potential primary campaign against Hutchinson next year may test how much room, if any, there is to challenge his conservative credentials. It could also show whether the rifts Hutchinson has had with some in his party on issues like health care run deep.

Jan Morgan, a gun rights advocate who gained national attention three years ago by banning Muslims from her firing range, announced last week she’s forming an exploratory committee and would launch a listening tour as she considers whether to challenge Hutchinson next year. In a Facebook page announcing her bid, Morgan called Hutchinson someone who “campaigns like a conservative Republican but governs like a liberal Democrat.”

Morgan’s announcement follows a legislative session where she sharply criticized Hutchinson and legislators for exempting college sporting events from a new law dramatically expanding where concealed handguns are allowed. The exemptions were approved following complaints from the Southeastern Conference and other athletic groups concerned about handguns at football games and other events.

But she also targeted Hutchinson on a hodgepodge of other issues where she accuses him of being insufficiently conservative. They include his support for keeping the state’s hybrid Medicaid expansion, which currently covers more than 300,000 low-income residents. The program uses Medicaid funds to purchase private insurance for low-income residents and was crafted before Hutchinson took office as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health law. She also singled out his opposition to legislation this year restricting which public restrooms transgender people can use, and his call for lawmakers in 2015 to rework a religious objections measure in the wake of complaints the original bill was anti-gay.

It wouldn’t be the first time Hutchinson has had to counter a primary challenge from the right. Hutchinson, a former congressman and federal Homeland Security official, easily defeated Curtis Coleman in the 2014 Republican gubernatorial primary after the Little Rock businessman regularly tried to cast his rival as someone more aligned with Washington than Arkansas.

During that race, Hutchinson said he was proud of his record and noted he’d been active with the GOP long before it became the majority party in the state.

“I’m proud to say I’ve been in the trenches fighting for a strong, two-party system for a long time,” Hutchinson said in 2014.

Hutchinson can now point to a first term where he’s seen nearly all of his top agenda items win approval in the state Legislature, including tax cuts targeting the middle and lower classes, as well as a near record low unemployment rate. His backing of anti-abortion measures, including his effort to strip Medicaid funding from Planned Parenthood, would also come up as a way to rally support from social conservatives.

Hutchinson also has enjoyed strong approval ratings since taking office and strong fundraising for a race where he doesn’t face any challengers yet. As a former state GOP chairman who’d run for statewide office three times before winning the 2014 race, he also has strong ties within the party throughout Arkansas and nationally.

The unknown factor is whether a state that overwhelmingly went for Donald Trump in the presidential election last year is ripe for the same type of anti-establishment message that put the billionaire reality show star in the White House. That message helped propel firebrand jurist Roy Moore to victory in a Republican primary runoff for the U.S. Senate last month over an establishment favorite backed by Trump and other top GOP figures.

“My objective is to drain the swamp, the Arkansas swamp,” Morgan said, borrowing one of Trump’s favorite phrases.

The potential for a squabble within the GOP that could force Hutchinson to run further to the right may offer a rare bit of hope for Democrats, who are still trying to find a way to rebound after a series of elections that have turned Arkansas solidly red. But Democrats still lack a challenger to take on Hutchinson next year, and the party’s path to making the race competitive still remains steep.

The coming months will tell whether the path is just as steep for a challenge from within the GOP.

___

Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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