BENTONVILLE, Ark. (AP) — When Asa Hutchinson launches his bid for president this week, he'll do so at a familiar location: the downtown square in the northwest Arkansas city where he was born, practiced law and first ran for office.
But Bentonville today is vastly different from the sleepy small town of fewer than 9,000 people where he got his start handling real estate cases and writing wills.
Fueled by retail giant Walmart, the nearly 57,000-person city is now the state's fastest growing. High-end restaurants, art galleries and shops crowd the downtown, while mountain bikers are a regular presence. The sounds of construction and the sight of cranes are also a regular part of life in the city. It's a far cry from a town that didn't even have an FM radio station until Hutchinson launched one in the late 1970s.
“To me, today, Bentonville represents the success of entrepreneurship and hard work and independent thinking,” Hutchinson told The Associated Press.
Hutchinson's campaign event on Wednesday gives the former two-term governor and increasingly outspoken critic of Donald Trump a chance to introduce himself on a national stage as he makes an uphill bid for the GOP nomination. But the venue also highlights Hutchinson's portrayal of himself as a business-friendly conservative in the backyard of his state's most well-known employer. It comes at the same time potential rival Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is waging war with Disney in his own state.
“It ’s both a return to something old and a rallying of something new,” said Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas. “It’s all encapsulated in one place.”
Hutchinson was born in Bentonville but grew up in Gravette, a neighboring town of about 3,600 people. He graduated from high school in Springdale, the home of Tyson Foods, and returned to Bentonville to start his law practice after college.
After serving part-time as the city's attorney, Hutchinson tried his hand at politics with a bid for local prosecutor. He ran as a Republican, something unheard of in then-solidly Democratic Arkansas.
"Back then, in Benton County, we didn't know what a Republican looked like,” said Kim Hendren, a former state legislator and Hutchinson's brother-in-law. Hendren, then a Democrat, won a seat to the Legislature that year, while Hutchinson lost the prosecutor's race.
Hutchinson said fellow lawyers advised him he had no political future in the state if he remained a Republican.
“They said, ‘If you ever want to be a prosecutor, if you ever want to be a judge, you’ve got to be a Democrat. There's just no future being a Republican lawyer in the state,'” said Hutchinson, who went on to serve as a federal prosecutor and was later elected to the U.S. House.
Now, the state is predominantly Republican with the GOP holding every statewide and federal seat and the party having a majority in both chambers of the Legislature.
Bentonville, however, is viewed as less conservative than the surrounding county and is expected to move more in that direction with an influx of Walmart employees and vendors from outside the state.
The influence of Walmart and founder Sam Walton's family is seen throughout the city. The original Walton's 5&10 store building still sits off the town square and is being renovated into an expanded museum. A temporary museum space, not far from the square, includes a hologram of Walton that answers visitors' questions.
The town has become a major tourist destination since Walton's daughter, Alice, founded the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in 2011. Crystal Bridges' collection features famous works of art such as Norman Rockwell's “Rosie the Riveter” painting and includes a Frank Lloyd Wright house that was moved to the museum's grounds in 2015.
Not far from the museum, ground has been broken on another project funded by Alice Walton: a school of medicine that is expected to welcome its first class of students in 2025. The Walton family has also spent millions of dollars in improvements around the area, including a system of biking trails that also draws visitors.
“The Bentonville of 20 years ago is not there anymore,” said Republican state Sen. Jim Dotson, whose district includes part of the city. “We’ve had so much growth, so much influx of folks that the small-town historical Bentonville that was the Sam Walton Bentonville where the five-and-dime started is virtually unrecognizable.”
It's an area where Hutchinson's political ties run deep. Hutchinson's brother, Tim Hutchinson, served in the U.S. Senate. His father was mayor of neighboring Sulphur Springs, and several of his nieces and nephews served in the state Legislature.
But Hutchinson remains an unknown to some who have recently moved to the region. That includes Gerald Hatley, a retiree who moved to neighboring Bella Vista from Texas in 2019, who was in Bentonville with his painting club one day last week. Hatley said he wasn't familiar with Hutchinson and said he's open to supporting anyone he thought would have the best chance at unseating President Joe Biden.
“I think we need to work toward getting the guy that's in there out,” Hatley said as he painted a picture of the Benton County courthouse. “Whatever candidate would prove to be the most successful in achieving that is the first criteria of mine.”
Brian Dutrieux, who works for a food supplier in Bentonville, said he'd need to know more about Hutchinson as a presidential candidate but said he's been happy with how the state's economy fared under Hutchinson.
Dutrieux said he's ready to look at a candidate other than Trump, citing DeSantis as an example. But he was skeptical of how Hutchinson could stack up.
“In the world we live in today, I just don't know if he has the swagger or the brand to compete,” Dutrieux said. “He just seems very vanilla.”
Hutchinson is also launching his bid in an area where the former president remains popular. About 62% of the county's voters supported Trump in the 2020 presidential election. But Hutchinson said the challenges he faces in winning over Trump supporters in his home territory are the same that he'll encounter in early states in the GOP contest.
“You're going uphill when you're running against Trump in the primary, whether you're running in Iowa or Arkansas," Hutchinson said.