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Barth: McDaniel, the comeback kid? 

click to enlarge Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel image
  • Brian Chilson

A clear political trend of 2013 has been the coming back to electoral life of candidates scarred by sexual scandals in a manner unprecedented in modern American politics. Beginning with Mark Sanford's reemergence as a successful candidate in a South Carolina special election for Congress, and now continuing through the New York City candidacies of former Congressman Anthony Weiner and former Governor Eliot Spitzer, candidates presumed politically dead because of their very public indiscretions have returned to viability. While time will tell whether Weiner and Spitzer can complete their comebacks, polling this week shows that both have real shots at winning Democratic primaries for mayor and comptroller, respectively, in one of the nation's toughest political environments.

While he will not appear on the 2014 ballot, another post-scandal comeback is underway in Arkansas. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who entered the 2014 campaign cycle as the leading candidate for governor, only to exit after an affair with Hot Springs lawyer Andi Davis came to light, shows all signs of a man who does not plan to leave the political arena after the end of his term in office.

After an early year hiatus, McDaniel has reemerged on the public stage with a vengeance, beginning with the late March oil spill in Mayflower. McDaniel has been by far the most aggressive public official attacking the ExxonMobil Pipeline Company regarding the spill, first rhetorically and then in court, suing the oil giant in mid-June. The attorney general's office has reasserted itself in protecting consumers in a series of high-profile actions. Most recently, McDaniel presented the case for a statewide conversation about the future of a death penalty system that is "completely broken." In short, McDaniel is being an aggressive, populist and mature attorney general.

In addition to doing his job quite well, McDaniel is also deeply engaged behind the scenes in Democratic Party politics. Party insiders praise his commitment to recruiting candidates for down-ticket statewide offices and for the handful of state legislative seats that could sway the state House back to the Democrats in the 2014 elections. As those races develop, McDaniel will also be a player in helping to finance them. His Leadership PAC provided $6,000 of former Congressman Mike Ross's record haul reported this week. All these actions will earn McDaniel chits for the future.

Indeed, some think that McDaniel himself might well be the strongest candidate the Democratic Party could put forward in either the First or Second Congressional Districts, the former where McDaniel grew up, the latter where he now resides. As of today, the party lacks candidates in both these races. With the Mayflower story having longer legs than anyone expected when the spill occurred, my hunch is that McDaniel is probably better situated in the slightly more cosmopolitan Second District, where the sexual indiscretion might matter less and where he could make inroads into populous Faulkner County because of his leadership on the oil spill issue. Patience, however, still may be McDaniel's best political friend — the 500 text messages that Andi Davis claims to have between herself and McDaniel still cast a shadow over any immediate political ambitions. McDaniel is smart to sit out this cycle so that the messy affair fades. In 2016, however, a still-young McDaniel will be well-positioned for a return in a state where Democrats suddenly have a short bench. Assuming incumbents maintain the aforementioned congressional seats, McDaniel will have his choice of races: either of the First or Second District Congressional races or the race for U.S. Senator John Boozman's seat. While he might not have the political heft he had before the affair, McDaniel maintains the natural political talent and the ideological synchronicity with the Arkansas primary electorate that initially kept Mike Ross (a politically talented man in his own right, as reflected in his recent record fundraising report) out of the governor's race. Indeed, those who have examined the candidacies of Sanford and Weiner note that it is their gifts in connecting with rank-and-file voters over the heads of a cynical media that gave them the opportunity at a comeback.

Coming back from a scandal after the powers-that-be have deemed one dead politically provides an additional benefit to McDaniel, an "insider" his entire life. He will now be the consummate outsider in a state, going back to its founding, that has always had a soft spot for underdogs.

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