By JOHN LYON
ARKANSAS NEWS BUREAU
LITTLE ROCK — Attorney General Dustin McDaniel’s departure from the governor’s race has shifted attention to newly announced candidate Bill Halter and other potential Democratic candidates, with observers wondering who among them, if any, can equal McDaniel in political stature.
McDaniel had raised $1.4 million before dropping out Friday, weeks after admitting he had an extramarital affair with Hot Springs attorney Andi Davis in 2011. As attorney general, he also had a public forum, something Halter has not had since leaving office as lieutenant governor in January 2011.
Halter may be best known as the father of the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery. He successfully led the drive to put a constitutional amendment to create a lottery on the ballot in 2008, and voters overwhelmingly approved it. The lottery lunched in September 2009 and has raised more than $300 million for college scholarships.
Halter’s success with the lottery shows he can get things done, and he "certainly has a proven ability to win statewide and a proven ability to fund races," said Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College and a member of the Democratic Party of Arkansas’ state committee.
"But he’s certainly not the kind of dominant figure that McDaniel was in his prime," Barth said.
McDaniel announced his intention to run for governor in June and was the only announced Democratic candidate until Halter entered the race on the same day McDaniel dropped out.
Hal Bass, a political science professor at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, suggested McDaniel’s decision threw the race for the Democratic nomination wide open.
"Before all this Andi Davis stuff arose, McDaniel had pretty effectively cleared the field," Bass said. "McDaniel was the Democrat that was most likely to withstand the Republican tide. With him out of the picture, it’s much more wide open. Halter does have the name recognition, he does have the resources. I doubt he’s going to get a free ride."
Bass said the Republican nominee was going to go into the race with an advantage to begin with, based on the 2010 and 2012 election results.
"It’s going to be incumbent upon whoever gets the (Democratic) nomination to prove himself or herself to be an extremely attractive candidate who can reach out to swing voters especially," he said.
State Democratic Party Chairman Will Bond said Democrats have proven for decades they can run state government responsibly and on budget. But he acknowledged the party, after being overwhelmed in two straight election cycles, has to prove that it can win elections.
"Yes we can, and we will," he said. "Gov. Beebe’s approval rating is still high, and there are tons of great people out there who would be strong candidates. Arkansans want somebody who will talk straight to them, who they can believe in and embrace. As unfortunate as this situation is, it creates opportunities for others."
Bond said there is a long list of Democrats who would make great candidates for governor and other statewide offices, including 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.
Another person often mentioned as a potential Democratic candidate for governor is former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, currently senior vice president for government affairs and public relations for Southwest Power Pool of Little Rock. Ross, who did not return a call Friday seeking comment, has said he would not run for governor in 2014 but has also said, "Never say never."
Ross represented the 4th District in Congress for 12 years. He was known as one of the most conservative Democrats in the House.
"(Ross) has geography to his advantage and fundraising ability to his advantage," Barth said. "He’s got problems ideologically, in that he’s arguably too conservative for the base of the party."
Barth said he also has heard state Sen. Keith Ingram of West Memphis and former 2nd District Congressman Vic Snyder mentioned as a potential Democratic gubernatorial candidates. He said most of the people he has heard mentioned have not proven their ability to win a statewide race.
"Other than (Ross and Snyder), who’s won a race beyond a state Senate district?" he said.
The only Republican who has entered the governor’s race to date is former 3rd District Congressman Asa Hutchinson.
Hutchinson was the GOP nominee for governor in 2006 but lost to Democrat Mike Beebe, who will be ineligible to seek a third term next year because of term limits. He also ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 1986 and for attorney general in 1990.
"Outside of (former Gov. Mike) Huckabee, you can’t get a name that’s better known in Republican primary circles than Hutchinson," Barth said, also noting that Hutchinson’s current project, heading a National Rifle Association effort to put armed security guards in every school, is likely to serve him well in a GOP primary.
But Barth also noted that Hutchinson has a number of losses on his record and has not always lived in the Republican stronghold of Northwest Arkansas.
"I do think there is still a point of entry for a good, vibrant Northwest Arkansas candidate," he said.