By JOHN LYON
ARKANSAS NEWS BUREAU
LITTLE ROCK — Attorney General Dustin McDaniel dropped out of the governor’s race Friday.
McDaniel announced the decision two and a half weeks after he said in a news conference that he was staying in the race despite having admitted to an inappropriate relationship with Hot Springs attorney Andi Davis.
"I had hoped that I could shape the 2014 gubernatorial debate with my vision for the future. Unfortunately, I am now convinced that if I run for governor, this campaign would be about me personally, rather than Arkansas’ future," McDaniel said in a news release.
"When it comes to our economy, our infrastructure and our schools — Arkansas is at a crossroads," he said. "I believe that we need a visionary to lead our state forward on these critical issues. Arkansas deserves a campaign that will focus on those issues, so I believe it’s in the best interests of my family, our state and the Democratic Party for me to not run for governor."
With McDaniel out of the race, former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter announced his intentions Friday to seek the Democratic nomination for governor. The only other announced candidate for governor is former Republican Congressman Asa Hutchinson.
McDaniel, who has been married to his current wife, Bobbi, since 2009, admitted in November to having had "inappropriate" interactions with Davis in 2011. He made the admission after he was mentioned in court filings in a custody dispute between Davis and her ex-husband, Fred Day.
Davis has represented clients in several cases in which the attorney general’s office was opposing counsel. McDaniel has said the affair had no impact on any of those cases.
Davis said earlier this month that McDaniel had not been entirely accurate in his public statements, but she declined to elaborate. She said in an email Friday, "I think it only appropriate to reserve any comment at this time."
In an interview Friday, McDaniel said he changed his mind about staying in the governor’s race after giving the matter more thought.
"I’ve certainly had time to think about it and take into account all of the political realities — and possibilities. There are certainly things that we don’t know about who might run and how things may evolve. But I’m trying to make the best, most reasonable decision that I can that hopefully will benefit the most people," he said.
McDaniel said he had not done internal polling to determine how the revelation of his affair with Davis had affected his campaign. He acknowledged that his fundraising was not at the level it once was — he raised more than $1 million before the affair came to light — but said that was intentional.
"I have not been enthusiastic about fundraising since probably early November. I wanted to weather this situation and evaluate it before asking for my friends and supporters to give more money," he said.
McDaniel said contributions to his general election and potential runoff campaigns will be returned to donors dollar-for-dollar. Contributions to his primary campaign that remain unspent will be returned to donors on a pro rata basis, he said.
McDaniel said he has not considered resigning as attorney general. Now in his second and, because of term limits, final term, he said he did not know what he would do after he leaves office in January 2015.
"I haven’t thought past the end of my term at this point. What I’m going to focus on is doing my job and doing it well, being a good attorney general," he said.
McDaniel had been considered a strong candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor. He said he believed that by dropping out of the race now he would give the state Democratic Party "plenty of time to find a candidate that we can all rally behind and support in the 2014 campaign."
Halter said Friday he will file paperwork next week to establish a campaign committee.
"Over the holidays my family and I talked about the demands a campaign for governor would place on us," Halter said in a news release. "We decided as a family that we are up for the challenge. That’s why next week I will take the first necessary step towards running for governor in 2014."
Hutchinson said Friday, "I know that this was a very difficult decision for Dustin that he gave a lot of thought and prayer to. I just wish him the best as he continues to serve the state as attorney general."
Regarding Halter’s announcement, Hutchinson said, "He’s certainly a formidable candidate and I welcome him to the race."
Will Bond, chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, said McDaniel was a personal friend who he hoped would still have a bright future in politics. Though unfortunate, McDaniel’s departure from the governor’s race opens the door for other Democrats, he said.
"There is a long list of folks who would make great candidates," for governor and for other statewide races in 2014, Bond said, mentioning, in addition to Halter, state highway commissioner John Burkhalter of Little Rock, Interim Higher Education Director Shane Broadway, state Sens. Bruce Maloch of Magnolia and Robert Thompson of Paragould, state Rep. Darrin Williams of Little Rock; and former state Rep. Chris Thomason of Hope, chancellor of the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope.
The state Democratic chairman said Democrats have proven their ability to balance budgets and govern responsibly, but he he acknowledged that what the party’s candidates have to re-establish is their ability to win elections.
Since 2008, Republicans have won five of the state’s six congressional seats, three of seven state constitutional offices and majorities in both the state House and Senate.
Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe, said McDaniel called Beebe with the news that he was dropping out of the governor’s race.
"The attorney general did call him to personally let him know before anything was publicly announced. He feels that Dustin needs to make whatever decision is best for Dustin," DeCample said.
DeCample said the governor did not consider the governor’s race or the future of the Democratic Party in his thoughts about McDaniel.
"He wasn’t commenting on the race while he was in it. He’s not going to start now that he’s out," DeCample said.