The Other Shoe to Drop? Dustin McDaniel's Candidacy (AP Analysis)

LITTLE ROCK — It turns out there was another shoe to drop: Dustin McDaniel's candidacy.

The Democratic attorney general's decision to exit the 2014 governor's race Friday came 17 days after vowing to move forward with his campaign for the state's top office in light of his admission of an extramarital relationship. Trying to put to rest questions about his personal life, McDaniel promised "there is no other shoe to drop."

It was a surprising end to a campaign for the Democratic nomination that many believed was McDaniel's to lose. The first to announce a run for the state's top office in 2014, McDaniel had more than $1 million in the bank and plenty of goodwill among the party faithful.

Even as he left the race, McDaniel said it wasn't the odds of the 2014 election that worried him as much as the nature of the campaign.

"It would have been a very negative and bitter race that was not focused on issues but rather, I believe, on me," McDaniel said after announcing his decision. "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's decision throws uncertainty into a race that Democrats saw as their chance to rebound from an election that handed Republicans control of the state Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.

"It may create, and that's a big may, an opportunity for the party to at least nominate a candidate who at least does not have that same kind of baggage in the general," said Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College who has been active in the Democratic Party. "That said, it's also an incredibly dangerous situation for the party because this thing could become very chaotic."

It's an identity crisis for a party trying to find a replacement for term-limited Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat who has enjoyed widespread popularity despite the GOP's rise in the state.

Before admitting last month to an inappropriate relationship, McDaniel seemed the best choice for the party to navigate a terrain that had turned increasingly Republican. The two-term attorney general had built support among Democratic legislators and activists through his campaigning and contributions from a political action committee.

But he also tacked to the right on key issues, including gun control. He dropped out of the race a little over a week after calling President Barack Obama's gun control measures "distressing." It was a sign to many that he wanted to wrest the issue of gun rights away from Republican rival Asa Hutchinson, a former congressman tapped by the National Rifle Association to lead an effort aimed at placing armed guards in the nation's schools.

With McDaniel out, Democrats face a far different field. Former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter announced he would file papers to run for the Democratic nomination moments after reports of McDaniel's decision surfaced.

As the champion of the state's lottery, Halter enjoys widespread name recognition around the state. But he's had a rocky relationship with establishment Democrats stemming from his unsuccessful primary challenge against then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln in 2010. Republicans are also eager to exploit his past support from unions as a vulnerability in a right-to-work state.

Highway Commissioner John Burkhalter, another potential candidate, has personal wealth he can draw on but little name recognition beyond government circles. The biggest question is whether McDaniel's departure opens the door for potential candidates who had previously ruled out a run. They include former Congressman Mike Ross, who opted against taking on McDaniel in next year's primary.

The departure also might not be the final chapter for McDaniel, who at the age of 40 had been a rising star in the party. His last two years in office, which include ongoing efforts to end millions in desegregation payments to three school districts, may offer a clue of whether he'll able to rehabilitate an image that's been defined in recent weeks more by a personal indiscretion than policy.

"My path lies in doing my job and enjoying my family, not in the chaos of this campaign," he wrote supporters in an email Friday.

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