NEW YORK – Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., received the nod Wednesday from President George W. Bush to become the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, thus raising eyebrows of interest both in the U.S. Senate and across the state of Arkansas.
The President's decision to nominate the conservative Hutchinson, a graduate of Bob Jones University and former House impeachment manager, will raise concern in some corners of the Senate, which has the power to confirm or deny his nomination, although confirmation is expected.
But the decision to elevate Hutchinson to the position is prompting a bigger battle in Arkansas' 3rd Congressional District as the political brawl to succeed him has already begun.
Arkansas Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee said "[the third district] is a solid Republican district. It's the only one in the state. I have every confidence that Republicans who have held the seat since 1966 aren't going to give it up. It's so safe that Democrats didn't even field an opponent against Asa Hutchinson two years ago."
But that's not how Michael Cook, executive director of the Arkansas Democratic Party, sees it. "For us, it is a golden opportunity to take the seat back. Now that it is an open seat it can be a very competitive district on the congressional level and below. Democrats hold a vast majority on the county level and state legislative seats."
Hutchinson's press secretary, Christian Brill, said the congressman will not resign until his nomination is confirmed. "He intends to remain in this seat because he is committed to his constituents and his congressional work. He will resign only after the nomination is approved because it is very important to finish his job here in Congress."
Huckabee Faction vs. Hutchinson Faction
Republicans are gearing up for a hard-hitting primary that some analysts say pits the Huckabee faction of the Arkansas GOP versus the Hutchinson faction -- Asa's brother Tim is a U.S. Senator from Arkansas.
The two leading GOP contenders for the seat are Hutchinson's nephew Jim Hendren, a former state representative, and former Arkansas Economic Development Commissioner and Huckabee friend, Jim von Gremp.
"If it comes open, I'm going to have a strong look and give it a whirl," said Hendren.
"If Jim von Gremp jumps in the race, I will be supporting him vigorously," said Huckabee. "He's a retired executive from Wal Mart with a tremendous background in business."
As for Hendren, Huckabee said, "I know that Jim is interested in running and he has that family connection. Naturally they are going to support their relative."
Rep. Hutchinson's spokesman Brill said, "[Asa Hutchinson] is remaining neutral in the race but has great respect for Mr. Hendren."
Meanwhile, Democrats are touting state Reps. Mike Hathorn, D-Huntsville, and Jo Carson, D-Fort Smith, and state Sens. David Malone, D-Fayetville, and Ed Wilkinson, D-Greenwood, as possible candidates. "Any one of our candidates will beat the Republican nominee based on the issues. At this stage of the game, they are all excellent candidates and any one of them can win the general election," Cook said.
Political insiders see it as a significant split within the Republican Party. Hendren ran and lost against current GOP State Chairman and former Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt, who was backed by Gov. Huckabee.
"Hendren is backed by the Hutchinsons," Cook said. "Republicans will have a divisive primary, which only helps Democrats at the end of the day. We'll have a primary ourselves and come together around the nominee, whereas these guys won't."
But Huckabee disagrees. "Whoever wins the GOP nomination will be the next congressman. It's hard for Democrats to understand that we are able to have a primary. They are struggling to recruit people," he said.