Bill Halter’s exit from the Arkansas Governor’s race provided a boost of momentum to Democrat Mike Ross’ prospects for the state’s top elected post. It could also pose a new challenge to GOP front-runner Asa Hutchinson.

By exiting the race, Ross is likely to avoid an expensive primary campaign and can apply his nearly $2 million raised for that race to general election expenses. Many observers believe that the Governor’s race could carry an $8-$10 million price tag.

Hutchinson, who was already trailing Ross on the fundraising trail, will have even more ground to make up as third quarter fundraising is underway.

Ross issued a statement shortly after Halter’s announcement saying, “Bill Halter called me this morning and told me his decision to exit the Governor’s race. I thanked him for his many years of service to the state of Arkansas, and said that I hope he continues to pursue public service. It’s clear Bill loves Arkansas and cares deeply for the people of this great state.

“I am honored by his kind comments in support of my candidacy for Governor. I am proud to have his support, and I welcome all of his supporters to join our campaign focused on Arkansas’s future. Holly and I send Bill, Shanti and his entire family all our best,” Ross said.

Hutchinson, who still faces two primary challengers – Curtis Coleman and Rep. Debra Hobbs – said Halter’s departure would shift the focus to the contrasts between Ross and him.

“Bill Halter’s withdrawal is just another interesting turn of events in the Democrat primary process. My focus is the message that we need to be more competitive in job creation; lower the state income tax; and more technology opportunity in education.  In contrast to the Democrat candidate, I have consistently opposed Obamacare and the democrat party agenda.  As the campaign progresses, the differences will become even more clear to the voters,” Hutchinson said in a prepared statement.

REACTION TO THE EXIT
Talk Business political bloggers Michael Cook and Jason Tolbert offered initial reactions to the Halter news.

“Today was great news for Arkansas Democrats. Their party is now united behind a candidate who will be well-funded and tough to beat. It’s bad news for Arkansas Republicans because they’re stuck with their version of Mitt Romney – a candidate nobody’s really crazy about,” said Cook, who blogs from the Democratic perspective.

Tolbert, a conservative who blogs from a Republican point-of-view, disagreed. He thinks that Ross’ cash windfall is a plus, but says Hutchinson can still remain competitive.

“If Mike Ross can sail through his primary without any opposition, it certainly makes his cash advantage all that more significant,” Tolbert said. “Asa Hutchinson should easily win his primary as well, but he needs to focus on raising money and closing the fundraising gap. The good news is that there is still plenty of time for Hutchinson to do this. If he is able to post a strong third quarter in October, then he will be positioned nicely for the general election against Ross.”

The Republican and Democratic parties of Arkansas chimed in by midday. Republican Party of Arkansas spokesman David Ray said he expected Ross to change political stripes with Halter out of the primary.

“Now that Bill Halter has exited the Governor’s race, how long will it take political opportunist Mike Ross to flip-flop again and pretend he never changed his positions on abortion and the Second Amendment to win liberal credibility against Bill Halter?” Ray said.

The GOP has accused Ross of shifting his positions on abortion rights and health care reform.

Will Bond, chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, lauded Halter’s announcement and made no reference to the potential ramifications for the Ross campaign.

“The Democratic Party of Arkansas commends Bill Halter for his dedication and public service on behalf of Arkansans,” Bond said, while complimenting Halter’s efforts for the lottery scholarship and as acting Social Security Commissioner. “We are thankful for his exceptional public service and expect him to remain a significant voice for working class people, our senior citizens and Arkansas Democrats.”

DOES HALTER HAVE A NEXT MOVE?
Halter’s departure also creates some goodwill for him within the Democratic Party, where he has typically been positioned as an outsider. Halter’s initial challenge to Gov. Mike Beebe (D) in 2006 and his 2010 primary challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) did not ingratiate himself with many party regulars.

A Democratic legislator from the Delta – who wished to remain anonymous – said Halter’s move “went a long way to repairing his image to Democrats” in his part of the state.

Halter did not give any indication of his future campaign plans, if any, in his statement earlier today.

He has been rumored as a potential candidate in the Second Congressional District, where he would face a tough race against well-funded incumbent Republican Cong. Tim Griffin.

A national Democratic party source said “if” Halter decides to get in the race, he’d be “a game-changing” candidate due to his national network of contributors and name ID. National Democrats argue that the central Arkansas district remains competitive for Democrats despite lopsided Congressional losses in 2010 and 2012.

Republicans disagree with the Democrats’ theory that the district would be competitive if Halter enters. They claim Halter would be too liberal for the district and point to Griffin’s cash advantage and the changing demographics in the Second District, which has trended Republican in the last two election cycles.

“Bill Halter represents the liberal side of the state Democratic party. We know he’s in bed with big labor unions … And I’m not sure voters are looking to be represented by someone who appears to be a perpetual candidate,” said one GOP operative.

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