For the first time in more than a decade, the political tide is turning against one of the nation’s premier lobbies, the National Rifle Association. The White House is tackling gun control in earnest. On Capitol Hill, more lawmakers sound willing to at least entertain the challenge of taking on the influential gun lobby. Several national polls show an increasing number of Americans ready to at least consider expanded gun control.
But down south, an old-fashioned Arkansas political sex scandal has inadvertently given a boost to the gun lobby’s most important emissary.
Republican Asa Hutchinson is leading the NRA’s nationwide effort to place armed guards and volunteers in schools. The organization launched the high-profile initiative following the December elementary school massacre in Connecticut, and Hutchinson’s role has helped propel him back into the national spotlight. And soon, he’ll be facing a highly competitive gubernatorial race back home against Democratic Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who until recently, looked in decent position to keep the governorship in Democratic hands.
Instead, McDaniel has been enmeshed in a sordid sex scandal that is threatening to derail his candidacy. McDaniel, married to his wife, Bobbi, since 2009, met lawyer Andrea Davis during the 2010 campaign. He said the two began an inappropriate relationship in 2011, which came to light after a Dec. 3 court filing related to a custody dispute between Davis and her ex-husband.
McDaniel admitted that he and Davis “had limited interaction, some of which was inappropriate.”
“To this day, including public events, Ms. Davis and I have been in one another's presence less than half a dozen times,” McDaniel said during a press conference last week, his first public appearance since admitting to the affair.
But Davis has disputed McDaniel's downplaying of events. “I hope he rethinks his answers and presents them as they occurred,” she told the Associated Press. She has claimed that the two have exchanged some 500 text messages.
McDaniel spokesperson Isaac Wright tells National Journal that the attorney general stands by the comments he made at last week’s press conference.
It’s bad enough that McDaniel’s campaign has to deal with an affair. But Davis isn’t just some no-name lawyer -- she was the opposing counsel in five cases that McDaniel’s office handled since 2010, including a high-profile school-choice case the state lost (McDaniel’s office has defended its management of the case).
Add on top of that an unsolved shooting death that could end up revealing even more about the affair. In February, authorities found the body of a 34-year-old man on Davis’s driveway who had been shot. Davis and her brother, Matthew, were taken in for questioning and eventually released. The case remains open.
The unsolved death doesn’t appear to have much to do with McDaniel, who said he has no knowledge of the case, except for this: authorities seized Davis’s cell phone on the day of the death, her lawyer has said. Davis has suggested that her text messages -- which she claims include exchanges she had with McDaniel -- would eventually be released.
Hutchinson’s Full Plate
Despite the attention on his affair, McDaniel shows no signs of slowing down his campaign. Meanwhile, Hutchinson has no plans on making it a campaign issue – and he probably doesn't have to, given that the free media attention back home is damaging enough.
“We wish Dustin and Bobbi the best, and their marriage,” Hutchinson said in an interview with National Journal. “Politics is tough.... It’s a tough business. You don’t need these types of challenges. They shouldn’t be issues in campaigns just because it adds stress to the marriage and everything else you’re trying to accomplish in the family.”
Plus, Hutchinson is pretty busy these days; he’s mostly consumed with the NRA’s school-safety initiative. “I fully expect to be a candidate in 2014,” Hutchinson says, adding that he anticipates being able to devote more time to his run sometime after this spring.
Hutchinson, who was a U.S. House member, the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, and a Homeland Security Department undersecretary, doesn’t need the added name recognition in Arkansas that his new national NRA role brings. But he says the work itself connects well with Arkansas voters, who care about school safety and hold a strong belief in the Second Amendment.
“We’ve got hunters and those who have firearms for other purposes, lawful purposes, and they’re concerned about what this administration might do in terms of gun control,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson has long-standing ties to pro-gun interests, having received more than $30,000 in campaign contributions from the gun lobby during his runs for state and federal office.
McDaniel, however, is potentially vulnerable on the issue in a statewide race. His father sued Remington Arms and other gun manufacturers after a 1998 Jonesboro, Ark., school shooting that left eight dead. McDaniel was in law school at the time, and said he did some research for the case. During his 2006 campaign for attorney general, McDaniel faced criticism for his stance on guns and his involvement with the lawsuit; he has insisted that he’s pro-Second Amendment; the NRA gave him an A-rating in 2010. “My idea of gun control is using both hands to aim,” McDaniel has said.
“He believes in protecting law-abiding citizens' Second Amendment rights. That's the kind of leader he has been as attorney general and the kind of leader he will be as governor,” Wright said.
Indeed, no major politician is eager to tackle gun control in state where hunting and owning a gun is common. “Whoever runs for governor, Democrat or Republican, will hunt and fish,” says Skip Rutherford, University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service dean (and father of McDaniel’s chief of staff).
While talk of an assault-weapons ban or restrictions on ammunition takes hold in Washington, “Arkansas is going to be one of the last places to change,” says Rutherford. In fact, the state Legislature expects to look at legislation to potentially loosen gun laws in the new session.
A Hutchinson win may not make much of a difference to the NRA’s standing in Arkansas. But at a time when the nation is debating gun control -- and after the NRA received nationwide backlash after the announcement of the school-safety initiative that Hutchinson is leading -- it certainly can’t hurt the organization to have a top lieutenant living in a Governor’s Mansion.
The McDaniel comparisons to Bill Clinton are obvious. Both were young, ambitious Arkansas attorney generals with higher ambitions. But the big question for McDaniel is whether he has that famous Clinton charisma to bounce back politically after an extramarital affair. In a state whose politics are driven by personality, some political operatives doubt whether he has built up the personal likability that helped Clinton. And Clinton’s first sex scandal hit as he was running for president. He was a known quantity by then.
News of McDaniel’s affair comes as he’s trying to introduce himself to voters, and his campaign has been criticized for waiting almost three weeks to speak to the media about the affair.
“I think people know the [McDaniel] name, but he’s not known.… They don’t really know him like they did Clinton when he was governor,” says Talk Business columnist Michael Cook, who ran former Democratic Lt. Gov. Bill Halter’s campaign.
McDaniel was already likely to face a tough race in a state where the 2012 election handed Republicans all four congressional seats and a majority in the state Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. McDaniel’s campaign released an internal poll last month showing him trailing Hutchinson 44 percent to 41 percent. And that was before he admitted to the affair.
“Dustin McDaniel was probably an underdog in the general election to begin with, his own poll results said so, and this obviously does nothing to help him out of the hole he started in,” says Arkansas GOP consultant Keith Emis.
But Wright disagrees. “Beginning the campaign in a statistical dead heat with someone of Mr. Hutchinson's name recognition is [a] strong start,” he says.
McDaniel could also face a tough primary. While he’s the only Democrat officially running, last year Halter’s spokesperson said he was considering a bid for governor, and he is seen as McDaniel’s biggest primary challenger. John Burkhalter, a state highway commissioner and wealthy real-estate developer, has also expressed interest in the race and could provide a challenge, given his ability to self-finance.
“I don’t know if Asa was a slam-dunk to win this beforehand; he was certainly considered a favorite, and now given there’s going to be a very volatile Democratic primary, he’s a clear front-runner,” Emis said.
If McDaniel has a tough primary, Cook says that Democrats might be “more apt to forgive and forget… But it’s still out in terms of strength of the general election.”
It could be months before the impact of the affair is felt. Wright said that the campaign met its 2012 fundraising goals. However the affair shakes out politically for McDaniel, the election isn’t for another year. Rutherford cautions that “2014 is a long way away from now.”
What happens in the Arkansas governor's race will matter beyond its borders. Southern states, one by one, have seen their governorships slip from Democratic hands and into Republican ones. Arkansas is one of the last states standing for Democrats, and it could fall even faster, thanks to one of the constants of public life: private infidelity.