LITTLE ROCK (AP) — With more than $1 million raised and a six-month head start on his rivals, Dustin McDaniel was poised to be the last hope for a Democratic Party that’s struggling for survival in Arkansas. But the attorney general’s admission of an extramarital relationship could turn him into another cautionary tale of Arkansas politics.
McDaniel’s admission of an inappropriate relationship with a Hot Springs attorney eliminates the advantage his name recognition and fundraising prowess had given him over a long list of potential rivals for a race that’s two years away. Instead of coasting through a party primary and gearing up for a close general election, he now has to prove to party faithful that he can survive a scandal of his own making.
McDaniel, who has been married since 2009, last week acknowledged a relationship with Andrea L. Davis, a Hot Springs attorney who represented a group of parents in a lawsuit over the state’s school choice law. His admission came after Davis’ ex-husband, in court filings, alleged an affair between the two.
"With respect to Ms. Davis, I met her during the 2010 campaign. I had limited interaction with her in 2011, some of which I regret to say was inappropriate," McDaniel said in a statement.
The admission came less than a week after McDaniel’s campaign touted his strength against potential rivals for the Democratic nomination in 2014, saying internal polling showed him leading former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter and Highway Commissioner John Burkhalter.
"We are off to a strong start. A lot will happen over the next two years and it is critical that we have the resources to make our case and turn back the inevitable attacks to come," McDaniel said in a fundraising email days before his admission. "That is why building a strong campaign war-chest at this time is so critical."
Now, his bid for a Democratic nomination that once seemed all but assured is in jeopardy. A general election fight that was already a challenge after a Republican takeover of the state Legislature is now even more daunting for McDaniel.
Political observers say McDaniel’s candidacy is clearly in peril, but aren’t ready to write him off completely yet.
"It’s detrimental to his candidacy, but I don’t think it destroys it in and of itself," said Hal Bass, a political science professor at Ouachita Baptist University.
Bass and other political observers say McDaniel is at least cushioned by the fact that he’s a known quantity in the state, and that the relationship isn’t the only thing voters know about him. But will that be enough to stem the damage?
History may not be on McDaniel’s side. Arkansas is the home state of Bill Clinton, the most well-known politician to survive after admitting infidelity, but the state has an even longer list of officeholders who have seen their hopes dashed by personal shortcomings.
They include Jim Hendren, who was the front-runner in a 2001 special election for a northwest Arkansas congressional seat until admitting a month before voting began that he had a yearlong affair with a married woman. Hendren, a Christian conservative family-values candidate, finished third in the GOP primary and conceded that publicity about his private life damaged his campaign.
The following year, Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson lost his re-election bid against Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor in a race that many believed hinged on Hutchinson’s divorce from his wife of 29 years and his subsequent marriage to a former aide.
The biggest test will come in the following weeks and the details that come out about McDaniel’s relationship with Davis. So far, he hasn’t spoken publicly about the relationship and has denied reporters’ requests for phone and email records, saying they are part of his office’s "working papers."
His office has already acknowledged that Davis was the opposing counsel in five cases defended by McDaniel’s office, including a school choice lawsuit that the state lost.
McDaniel’s office has said he wasn’t directly involved in any of the cases and has said his relationship didn’t harm the handling of the suits. It’s unclear whether relationship could prompt a complaint before a state disciplinary panel for lawyers. If it does and he’s found in violation of those rules, McDaniel could face a range of sanctions that include disbarment.
Questions also remain about Davis and her involvement in the investigation into the shooting death of a man found outside her home. Davis was questioned in the case, and police have not named any suspects. McDaniel’s office has said it has had no involvement in the case and McDaniel never discussed it with her.
It may take longer to see the financial impact the relationship has had on McDaniel’s campaign. His next campaign finance report due in January will only reflect a couple weeks after the disclosure, but a quarterly report in the spring may show whether donors have bolted.
It’s also unclear where McDaniel’s supporters go. Many of the establishment Democrats who have backed McDaniel may still hold hard feelings against Halter for his unsuccessful bid against former Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the Democratic primary two years ago. Burkhalter’s name isn’t widely known.
With retiring Congressman Mike Ross taking himself out of the gubernatorial race earlier this year, it leaves few big-name options for the party.
"All of a sudden you realize just how weak the Democratic bench for these statewide offices is," said Jay Barth, a political science professor for Hendrix College.
Political consultants say the next steps for McDaniel will be talking publicly about the relationship rather than offering a written statement that leaves more questions than answers. Part of that will include talking candidly with his staff and supporters about any other issues that may be lurking.
"There needs to be a very, very strong ‘Come to Jesus’ meeting with his campaign so it’s all laid out on the table and they have an opportunity to strategize and move past those issues if they come up," said Debbie Willhite, a Democratic political consultant.
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. He can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo