The 2014 race for governor was turned upside down Friday when Attorney General Dustin McDaniel announced he wouldn't run for governor.
Not even three weeks before, McDaniel had said he remained committed to the race, despite the embarrassing admission of a past extramarital affair with a Hot Springs lawyer.
I'm willing to believe McDaniel that there were no other shoes to drop. But continuing references to his former girlfriend were inevitable because of her own troubles, including being a witness to a homicide that remains under investigation.
Polling suggested McDaniel was being wrecked by the story. Where his polling showed him barely trailing potential Republican foe Asa Hutchinson pre-admission, the gap had widened to double digits post-admission. Women even favored the anti-choice Hutchinson. Support among black voters was tepid for a Democrat.
McDaniel insisted he could continue raising money — he'd banked more than a million — but his cash register had slowed. Many Democrats were urging that he step aside, lest he be a weight on the entire ticket in a pivotal year.
It had to be hard to give up a dream. He had the party connections. He had the money. He had the energy. He had at least some of the magnetism that has powered past successful Arkansas Democrats. At a minimum, reality finally set in. So he stepped aside quietly and with as much dignity as the situation allowed. He's only 40. After a good closeout of his time as attorney general and a few years of quiet personal life, he might still have a political future.
Meanwhile, what now? Former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, whose allies commissioned the poll that showed McDaniel tanking, couldn't even wait for McDaniel's formal, but telegraphed, announcement to be first Democrat in. Highway Commissioner John Burkhalter continues to indicate he's running. He lacks an outgoing personality, but he has $40 million.
Three lawyers once thought to be considering attorney general — Sen. Robert Thompson, Chancellor Chris Thomason of the UA Hope campus and U.S. Attorney Conner Eldridge — might eventually produce a gubernatorial candidate among them. Paul Suskie, the former PSC commissioner, has been mentioned, along with former legislator Shane Broadway and UA Chancellor David Gearhart. I'd mention former U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder, but a man who left Congress to spend more time with family and a good-paying private industry job isn't likely to take on this task.
Instant frontrunner in the event of a change of heart would be newly minted lobbyist Mike Ross, the former congressman who had earlier renounced gubernatorial ambitions in the face of McDaniel's expected coronation. He'd be strong — as a God, guns and anti-gay Blue Dog — in a general election. But he might not prove so appealing in a primary likely to be decided this year by real Democrats. Republican primary races are expected to prevent crossover mischief of the sort that upended Halter's primary race against U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln.
Though the election is 22 months away, it is not too early for candidates to get serious. That's true for Republicans, too. Hutchinson is in. He may stand alone, though reliable sources say House Speaker Davy Carter is considering a race, complicated though it would be in the GOP primary by his speaker election on the back of Democratic support. Republican primary voters are not long on nuance or bipartisanship.
An opponent with crossover potential should present an attractive option to Hutchinson, if political calculations mattered. The polling showed Hutchinson, three times a loser in statewide races, with low favorability numbers even before he became the NRA poster child for putting more guns in schools (another loser with women voters). Against Ross, of course, that gun stuff wouldn't be a problem for Asa. They'd probably challenge each other to a shooting match.
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