Former Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter's decision to drop out of the Democratic primary for governor on Monday clears the field for former Rep. Mike Ross, who will likely face former Republican Rep. Asa Hutchinson next fall. But it will also have some national and state Democratic strategists turning their eyes to the Second District, where they hope Halter will challenge Republican Rep. Tim Griffin.
Halter's decision to drop out of the gubernatorial contest should come as little surprise, particularly given the mere $102,000 he raised last quarter compared to Ross' record-breaking nearly $2 million haul. Halter did the same thing in 2006 when it became clear that now-Gov. Mike Beebe was the stronger candidate to take on Hutchinson in the fall.
But Halter's decision doesn't necessarily mean he'll sit out the 2014 cycle. National Democrats are pushing for him to run against Griffin, who won reelection with 55 percent of the vote last year, running just over 5 points behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. But Democrats are hopeful that the two-term congressman is vulnerable, given the combination of a strong Democratic candidate boosted by turnout for Ross in the gubernatorial race and conservatives' dissatisfaction with Griffin's record. One national Democratic operative called Halter a "game-changing sort of candidate," noting that he'd be "extraordinarily strong" in the congressional race, particularly given his home base in Little Rock.
Democrats plan to hammer Griffin's support for the oil industry in light of a recent oil spill within his district. The Pegasus Pipeline, operated by ExxonMobil, leaked thousands of barrels of oil in Mayflower, Ark., earlier this year, forcing dozens of families to evacuate. Just three months after the spill, ExxonMobil's PAC donated $2,500 to Griffin's reelection campaign. A spokesperson said that Griffin returned the check, but the PAC has contributed $4,000 to Griffin in previous cycles. Democrats are likely to make that an issue, as well as Griffin's 2011 vote against an amendment in the wake of the BP oil disaster that would have required them to have contingency plans for oil spills when applying for offshore drilling licenses. Oil and gas interests are Griffin's top industry contributors, according to OpenSecrets.org. Mayflower is in Faulkner County, which has the second-highest voter registration of any county in the district and is reliably Republican. Griffin won nearly 65 percent of the Faulkner County vote last year, but Democrats are hopeful that they can cut into his totals there in the aftermath of the spill.
Griffin appears to be well-prepared for a fight, however. He has been quick to get out ahead of the oil spill, making several visits to Mayflower this year and proposing legislation to keep victims from having to pay taxes on any compensation from ExxonMobil. Griffin raised $275,000 in the second quarter of the year -- almost triple what Halter raised for his gubernatorial campaign -- and has nearly $450,000 on hand, his largest second quarter warchest to date. His campaign recently leaked an internal poll, showing him leading Halter, 51 percent to 34 percent, and registering a 54-percent approval rating.
Halter had repeatedly said that he would stay in the governor's race rather than challenge Griffin, but now that he's ceded the nomination to Ross, Democrats are hopeful that he will change his mind. Asked whether Halter was open to running for another office in 2014, his spokesman and longtime adviser Bud Jackson said, "There have been rumors to that effect. We're not responding to rumors today." Jackson added that Halter is focused on calling and thanking supporters.
If he does decide to take a pass, Democrats have a few other options. State Rep. Linda Tyler and Conway Mayor Tab Townsell have both said they're considering the race. Little Rock School Board President Dianne Curry, who is currently running for lieutenant governor, has said that she has talked to EMILY's List and may drop out of that race to take on Griffin instead.
Griffin's district does present Democrats' best chances of picking up a seat in Arkansas next year, but that's still a relative measure: President Obama lost the Second District by 12 points last year, and the state as a whole has been trending away from Democrats. Republicans now control each of Arkansas four House seats for the first time since Reconstruction.