Columns » Jay Barth

Barth: What Dustin McDaniel should have said

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Last Tuesday, three weeks after admitting "limited interaction" of an "inappropriate" nature during 2011 with Hot Springs attorney Andrea Davis, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel met the press to answer questions regarding the affair and what it means for his race for governor in 2014. Until the political earthquake created by these events, McDaniel had established himself as a clear frontrunner for governor through his impressive fundraising and his shoring up of key party establishment support. McDaniel began his remarks by apologizing publicly to his wife and to the voters of the state. He then emphasized that nothing professionally untoward had occurred because of his personal interactions with an attorney opposing the state in litigation and that no other inappropriate relationships would come to light. So far, so good.

In the last paragraph of his opening remarks, however, McDaniel emphasized that his campaign for governor goes on uninterrupted; responding to a reporter's question, the AG went on to detail his campaign fundraising has exceeded initial goals. The pivot from remorse and personal responsibility back to campaign necessities (i.e., fundraising) seemed abrupt.

Instead of immediately returning to campaign mode, the AG should have announced that he was putting his campaign on the backburner — while not withdrawing entirely — to focus on getting his personal and professional life in order. That would have shown that his first priority truly was stabilizing his family, would have provided a dramatic counter to the perception that McDaniel is driven wholly by his desire for political advancement and would have provided important political advantages.

First, such a statement would have reduced the pressure on McDaniel to continue his fundraising pace during an inevitably difficult period. Even a healthy candidacy will be challenged by the fact that the low-hanging fruit in the state has already been tapped. Now, comparatively low numbers in the first quarter of 2013 will be seen as one more sign of the damage that the affair has done to him politically. McDaniel has banked on his fundraising prowess to keep primary opponents out of the race; his significantly weakened candidacy (evidenced by this week's Public Policy Polling survey showing McDaniel falling behind Republican Asa Hutchinson in a hypothetical matchup) means that prospective Democratic primary foes will now be less deterred by McDaniel's campaign cash. (He has raised right at $1 million to date.)

In addition, while the details of McDaniel's relationship with Davis would have continued to be covered closely by political bloggers, traditional media outlets — finding the story a supremely uncomfortable one to cover — would have likely embraced the opportunity to pay less attention to the story provided by McDaniel's retrenchment. The target on McDaniel's back would not have gone away but it would have shrunk through a suspension of the campaign. This would have been particularly helpful to McDaniel if any text messages between the AG and Davis come to light. We know little about the content of the text messages (Davis claims there are over 500 of them), but they are a source of considerable risk for the AG's candidacy.

Finally, turning attention away from campaigning and fundraising would have allowed McDaniel to spend time traveling the state in his official capacity making speeches like the one he made in Forrest City late last week. In this "noncandidate" mode, McDaniel could remind voters of the basic likeability that he had ridden to frontrunner status. The Public Policy Polling survey shows that McDaniel's unfavorable numbers now outpace his favorables by 15 points, driven by the recent negative media coverage. It is difficult for an active candidate to rehabilitate his or her public persona the way that McDaniel must now do. Of course, the down time from the campaign would also allow the AG to have low-key meetings with small groups of donors to convince them to stick with him through these tough times rather than seek out an alternative Democratic candidate.

McDaniel is understandably shell-shocked by what has happened to his promising political career in just a few weeks. It is likely just now sinking in that he has moved from gubernatorial frontrunner to a candidate who retains a path to the governorship but is decidedly less likely to get there. A more humble, less ambitious statement last week followed by a reboot of his campaign in the summer of 2013 would have been the likeliest ticket to political rehabilitation for the damaged attorney general.

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