Today, I attended an oddly historic press conference in Arkansas politics. For the first time ever an Arkansas statewide elected official, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, held a press conference to answer questions about an admitted affair.
It was the press conference McDaniel should have had quickly when the news of his affair first came to light. Instead, he mishandled the matter and allowed it to drag out and fester for three weeks, holiday season notwithstanding.
To his credit, however, I felt McDaniel struck the right chords during his press conference: he was contrite, apologetic and not defensive. He gave a prepared statement and then answered questions from the media for about 20 minutes. His wife, Bobbi, attended the press conference, but did not take the stage. Overall, the press conference went as well as it could considering the subject matter.
Click here for Talk Business’s complete reporting on McDaniel’s press conference, including the video of the event.
It will be some time before we can fully see how this plays out with the voters. However, let’s review the good news and bad news for McDaniel’s gubernatorial candidacy that comes to mind hours after today’s press conference.
First, the good news.
My gut tells me that Democratic primary voters are apt to forgive his affair in light of today’s press conference. Remember that fella named Bill Clinton? That does not mean, however, that he is a lock for the Democratic nomination that he once was.
McDaniel has done a good job of traveling the state, building relationships with Democrats and that likely helps as he tries to move past this scandal. While former Lt. Governor Bill Halter and businessman John Burkhalter are discussed as potential candidates, they are still just that, potential. As best I can tell, they have been largely absent from the political scene and have not done what McDaniel has done in building relationships and fostering goodwill statewide.
Moreover since these two potential candidates are not in the race, McDaniel currently has the field to himself and can make amends with Democratic voters statewide.
If McDaniel is smart, he’ll criss-cross the state as soon as possible on an unofficial mea culpa tour to mend fences that need tended to. Conversely, if his potential Democratic opponents are smart they’ll make their intentions known as soon as possible so voters know there are other options.
Finally, while before this scandal broke I thought McDaniel had a 75% chance of being the nominee, I now see paths for either Halter or Burkhalter to wrest the nomination from the Attorney General.
Now to the bad news for McDaniel, of which there are three main points.
First, McDaniel has already lost the expectation game. Back in early December, McDaniel’s campaign released an internal poll showing him leading potential Democratic rivals Bill Halter and John Burkhalter with 54% for McDaniel, 14% for the former Lt. Governor, and 1% for the unknown businessman Burkhalter. Frankly, I never believed this poll as there is no way McDaniel is leading a former Lt. Governor and former U.S. Senate candidate by roughly 40 points in a primary.
The “expectation game” problem that McDaniel created for himself is another campaign or media outlet will soon release a poll showing McDaniel leading, but with 35%-40% of the vote, which is where he was likely all along. Then the storyline becomes “McDaniel’s Poll Numbers Drop Dramatically” giving Democratic rivals an opening to gain momentum. McDaniel has already lost the expectation game, we just haven’t seen the points on the scoreboard yet.
The second piece of bad news is that in a general election McDaniel may have what I’ll call the “Hutchinson Problem.”
In 2002, Republican U.S. Senator Tim Hutchinson ran for re-election and his political problem was that he had divorced his wife of many years and married one of his staffers almost exactly one year after the divorce was finalized. Hutchinson never publicly admitted he had an affair, and was never directly accused of having one, but it was widely believed that he had one. This affair undercurrent permeated his race against then-Attorney General Mark Pryor, and while Democrats never hit Hutchinson directly over his personal life, they did have a theme of “He’s Changed” in referring to Hutchinson that got the message across. Ironically, Tim Hutchinson’s son, Jeremy, is currently immersed in an affair scandal of his own.
Will McDaniel face the same problematic undercurrents of martial infidelity that Tim Hutchinson did in 2002? How will women voters, long a base for Arkansas Democrats, view McDaniel’s affair if he is the nominee? It’s still too early to tell, but these questions cannot be underestimated or brushed aside. Moreover, Republicans will smartly figure out a way to use this scandal against McDaniel without getting mud on their hands.
Finally, the last piece of bad news is that this whole affair, no pun intended, is the first time many general election voters will have been introduced to the Attorney General. General election voters may have known of McDaniel, but never really knew him on a personal level since an AG is not as high-profile as a Governor or U.S. Senator. Now the first real introduction to him is news of his affair and as we all know in life, first impressions matter.
On the whole, I believe that with today’s press conference McDaniel may have stopped some of the bleeding in a Democratic primary fight. However for a general election, he still remains a dangerously weakened candidate. That could change, but only time will tell.