Can Dustin McDaniel survive in Arkansas?

December 19, 2012

Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel's (D) admission of an inappropriate relationship with an attorney he met during the 2010 campaign complicates the Democrat's 2014 gubernatorial bid. His team says he will not end his campaign. But whether or not he can survive the revelation in the longterm will likely depend on a number of variables, which we take a look at in some more detail below.


In this 2010 file photo, Attorney Gen. Dustin McDaniel, right, and his wife Bobbi walk through the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., after he filed for re-election. (Danny Johnston/AP)

1) The news surfaced during a custody case between the women with whom McDaniel had the relationship and her ex-husband. One question moving forward is whether this is a one or two day story, or if the local media will pursue it in more detail. The Associated Press reported that court records show the attorney with whom McDaniel had the relationship represented parents who successfully challenged the state's school choice law. The state is appealing the ruling in the case, in which McDaniel's office represented Arkansas. 

A strategist close to McDaniel's campaign characterized the relationship as an "isolated incident," and expressed confidence the Democrat could still win the governorship. 

"We remain confident that Dustin will be the next governor of Arkansas, as people judge him on the totality of his record and not an isolated incident," the strategist said. 

McDaniel is the only Democratic candidate in the race, and the presumed early frontrunner for his party's nomination, meaning his past will be closely scrutinized by local reporters. The strategist close to McDaniel's campaign did not expect him to have to testify in the case involving the woman with whom he had a relationship, because it is a custody dispute. In the case, the woman's ex-husband reportedly  accuses her of other relationships, drug use and money laundering, which McDaniel said he had no knowledge about. Candidates in other races have survived stories like this before. But if there are new details -- and to be clear, there is nothing to suggest, at this point, that there are -- beyond what came out on Tuesday, it will make things difficult for McDaniel.

2) Another question is how the news will affect other potential candidates. McDaniel has the Democratic field to himself right now. But if Democrats decide to recruit someone else, or another serious Democratic candidate jumps in, wagering McDaniel has become vulnerable as a result of the revelation, then that certainly changes the calculus in the contest.  McDaniel has reportedly polled himself against former Democratic lieutenant governor Bill Halter and highway commissioner John Burkhalter. His numbers showed he could beat both men. 

On the Republican side, Asa Hutchinson, the former DEA administrator and congressman who lost to now-Gov. Mike Beebe (D) in 2006, and Lt. Gov Mark Darr are regarded as the two most formidable potential candidates. To be clear, Democrats were going to have a tough time holding the governor's mansion, even before Tuesday's news. Arkansas has a strong history of electing Democratic governors, but the state has been tilting increasingly Republican in recent years. 

3) McDaniel has already raised over $1 million for his bid. Fundraising will be a good gauge of his standing as the campaign moves forward. If donors lose faith that he can get past the story in the socially conservative state, it will be reflected in future fundraising reports. 

4) It's never good for a candidate to face a story like this in a campaign. But if it's going to happen, its better politically for the candidate that it come out well in advance of Election Day. Remember the story about Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) billing taxpayers for travel on her private plane that surfaced early in the 2012 cycle? It became an afterthought by the end of her race as the controversy surrounding opponent Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) dominated the conversation. 

Now, the Missouri race was a unique contest, and it's not a certainty that other issues will overshadow McDaniel's inappropriate relationship down the road in the campaign. But the fact that it came out in December 2012, as opposed to say, a month before Election Day, is relative good news for McDaniel. 

Updated at 11:49 a.m. 

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Sean Sullivan · December 19, 2012