LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel announced Friday that he won't seek the Democratic nomination for governor in 2014, saying questions about an extramarital relationship would overshadow the discussion about the state's needs.
Former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, a Democrat, quickly announced he would join the race, which has also attracted former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican.
McDaniel has faced questions about his future in the race since admitting to an "inappropriate" relationship with Hot Springs attorney Andrea Davis, who had handled five cases involving McDaniel's office. In an email to supporters, McDaniel said the scandal had become too much of a distraction for his campaign.
"I had hoped that I could shape the 2014 gubernatorial debate with my vision for the future," he wrote. "Unfortunately, I am now convinced that if I run for Governor, this campaign would be about me personally, rather than Arkansas's future."
McDaniel, who has been married for 2009, said in a telephone interview that he believed he and his family would have faced a more caustic race.
"It would have been a very negative and bitter race that was not focused on issues but rather, I believe, on me," McDaniel told The Associated Press. "I don't want that. I don't want that for the state. I don't want that for my family. I don't want that for me personally. I don't want that for the Democratic Party."
McDaniel has apologized for the relationship and promised that "there is no other shoe to drop." He has said no ethics rules were violated and the litigation involving Davis wasn't compromised by the relationship.
"I allowed a lapse of character and judgment to hurt my family, my friends and my reputation," McDaniel said at a Jan. 8 news conference. "For that, I am deeply ashamed and very sorry."
McDaniel said he and Davis met during his 2010 re-election bid and the two had "limited" interaction in 2011. McDaniel told reporters earlier this month the two were in each other's presence less than half a dozen times, including at public events. Davis has said the two exchanged more than 500 text messages in 2011 and 2012.
McDaniel was the only announced Democratic candidate for governor until Friday. He has raised more than $1.4 million since launching his bid in June.
Halter announced he would seek the Democratic nomination moments after reports of McDaniel's dropping out surfaced. A spokesman said Halter would file paperwork to make his bid official next week.
"Over the holidays my family and I talked about the demands a campaign for governor would place on us," Halter said in a prepared statement. "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."
Democratic Highway Commissioner John Burkhalter also said he's considering a run.
"I've made a decision in that race, but now is not the time to discuss that," he said Friday. "At some point in time, I'll make that announcement with my wife and my children."
McDaniel is a former state representative from Jonesboro who was elected attorney general in 2006. He won re-election four years later without any major party opposition.
McDaniel's exit is the latest blow for a Democratic Party that is reeling from a November election where Republicans won control of the state House and Senate for the first time in 138 years. Republicans also swept all four of the state's congressional seats.
McDaniel said he did not have any plans yet to endorse anyone for the May 2014 primary.
"I know there are some very talented men and women within the Democratic Party who would not have considered running with me in the race, but now very much see it as an open field," he told the AP. "What I'm hoping is that the party will listen to and hear the debate on the issues and that we nominate the best person."
Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe is barred by term limits from seeking re-election next year. A spokesman said McDaniel called Beebe Thursday night to inform him of his decision. Beebe has not endorsed anyone in the governor's race.
"Essentially, the governor feels that Dustin needs to do what's best for him and his family," Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said.
Hutchinson announced earlier this month he would seek the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Several other Republicans are also considering a run.