LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel's admitted inappropriate relationship with a Hot Springs attorney — and questions about the impact it had on a lawsuit his office defended for the state — throws uncertainty into a bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination that his campaign had just days before suggested was his to lose.
A day after McDaniel admitted to the relationship with Andrea L. Davis, his campaign offered few details Wednesday about the duration or nature of their contact. McDaniel admitted to the relationship after a sexual affair between the two was alleged in documents filed in a custody dispute between Davis and her ex-husband.
Davis, who has said her attorneys have advised her to not comment, did not return calls Wednesday morning. She represented a group of parents who successfully challenged the state's school choice law, a case in which McDaniel's office represented state education officials.
McDaniel, who has been married since 2009, is the only announced candidate for the 2014 governor's race and has raised more than $1 million for the bid. His admission to the relationship came just days after his campaign touted internal polling that showed the attorney general with a strong lead over potential rivals for the party's nomination.
"We are off to a strong start," McDaniel said in a fundraising email to supporters last week. "A lot will happen over the next two years and it is critical that we have the resources to make our case and turn back the inevitable attacks to come."
Political observers say the disclosure raises the likelihood that McDaniel will have to contend with a heated fight for his party's nomination. He already faced the likelihood of an uphill general election fight, after Republicans took over the state Legislature in last month's election. Several Republicans, including former Congressman Asa Hutchinson, are considering a run for the state's top office.
"This does seem to make it all but certain that he'll have primary opposition and maybe a decent amount of it," said Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College who has been active with the Democratic Party.
McDaniel's two chief rivals for the Democratic nomination have so far held off on targeting McDaniel over the relationship. Highway Commissioner John Burkhalter declined to comment on the revelation this week, while former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter was on vacation and unavailable.
"His level of interest remains the same and it's serious," Halter spokesman Bud Jackson said.
McDaniel's campaign refused to answer questions about the length or nature of his relationship with Davis and said he hoped voters would accept his apology.
"It is Dustin's hope that he will be judged on the totality of his record of accomplishments for the state," spokeswoman Tricia Wallace said.
The most immediate threat to McDaniel's political future stems from questions surrounding the impact that his relationship with Davis had on the school choice case the state lost earlier this year.
In June, a federal judge struck down the law, saying race couldn't be the only factor considered in deciding whether students could transfer between districts. Arkansas is appealing that decision, but state lawmakers are expected to consider proposals to rewrite the transfer law next year.
McDaniel's office on Wednesday said the attorney general never discussed the case with Davis, and he didn't tell anyone involved in the case that he knew her. Assistant Attorney General Scott Richardson is listed as the lead attorney for the state in the case.
It's unclear whether McDaniel or Davis could face a complaint before a disciplinary panel. The state's professional conduct rules for attorneys says a conflict of interest exists if there's a significant risk that a client's representation will be "materially limited" by a personal interest of the lawyer.
Stark Ligon, director of the Arkansas Supreme Court Committee on Professional Conduct, has said he can't comment on specific cases. Lawyers who violate the conduct rules can face sanctions that include law license suspension and disbarment.
McDaniel's campaign has refused to offer many details about his relationship with Davis, who was questioned by police in February after a Hot Springs man was fatally shot outside her home.
An initial report by the Garland County Sheriff's Office lists Davis' brother, Matthew Davis as a "suspect" who was present at the scene. State police, who have taken over the investigation, wouldn't discuss whether they have any suspects.
Davis also faces being found in contempt of court after not appearing for a Tuesday hearing in a case in which she represents a man charged with rape and incest with his stepdaughter. She must appear for a Jan. 8 hearing.
Debbie Willhite, a Democratic political consultant in Little Rock, said she hasn't seen signs yet of McDaniel's supporters throwing their support to another candidate. The damage to McDaniel's campaign probably won't be clear until next spring, since a quarterly campaign finance report due Jan. 15 would only reflect roughly two weeks of fundraising after he disclosed the relationship.
Willhite said McDaniel's campaign has handled the admission well but said the attorney general needs to have a "public mea culpa" about the relationship soon.
"People don't want to just read a press release," Willhite said. "They really want to see him, feel his pain and feel his remorse."
Associated Press writer Chuck Bartels contributed to this report.
Andrew DeMillo can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo