LITTLE ROCK — Democrat Bill Halter drop out of the governor’s race Monday, citing the strength of former Congressman Mike Ross’ campaign and a desire to unite the Democratic Party.
The former lieutenant governor’s second decision in seven years to abandon a race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination fueled speculation that he might instead run for Congress. Halter’s spokesman said he would not address any future political plans Monday, only focus on winding down his gubernatorial campaign.
"Since we announced our gubernatorial campaign, another strong candidate has entered the primary election and in order to avoid a divisive primary and to help unite the Democratic Party, I am ending my campaign for governor," Halter said in an email to supporters. "I congratulate Mike Ross on a great start to his campaign and I will be working hard to elect him and other Democratic nominees for office in the coming election."
Ross, who was 4th District congressman for 12 years before deciding not to seek re-election last year, reported earlier this month that he had $1.7 million in his gubernatorial campaign coffers. Halter reported having $837,046 on hand, most of it from a $640,000 loan he made to his campaign.
Halter’s announcement Monday had Democrats in Washington, D.C., abuzz at the possibility of mounting a serious challenge in the state’s 2nd Congressional District.
"If Halter were to enter the 2nd District race it would be a game changer," said a national Democrat who requested anonymity.
Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Will Bond said only that the party was thankful for Halter’s prior public service "and expect him to remain a significant voice for working class people, our senior citizens and Arkansas Democrats."
David Ray, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Arkansas, said, "Now that Bill Halter has exited the governor’s race, how long will it take political opportunist Mike Ross to flip-flop again and pretend he never changed his positions on abortion and the Second Amendment to win liberal credibility against Bill Halter?"
Ross, a longtime supporter of Second Amendment rights, said last year he supported banning high-capacity assault weapons in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school massacre. In April, Ross criticized the Arkansas Legislature for passing a bill banning abortions at 20 weeks and another banning abortions at 12 weeks, even though Ross had voted in Congress for a bill that would have banned abortions at 20 weeks. Many interpreted his statements as shifts to the left in preparation for a primary fight.
Halter has strong name recognition in Arkansas and has run a large professional campaign, which could give him a legitimate shot at defeating U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, Democrats say.
Halter challenged then-U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the 2010 Democratic primary and narrowly lost with 48 percent of the vote to Lincoln’s 52 percent. Lincoln went on to lose in the general election to Republican John Boozman.
A former official in the Clinton presidential administration, Halter enjoyed the support of labor unions in his race with Lincoln.
He was elected lieutenant governor in 2006. He ran briefly against Mike Beebe for the Democratic nomination for governor before dropping out of that race to run for lieutenant governor.
Halter spokesman Bud Jackson would not say Monday whether Halter was dropping out of the governor’s race to run for Congress.
"We’re focused on getting out of the governor’s race and thanking the people that poured their energy and effort into running for governor," Jackson said, adding that Halter was not available for an interview because he was busy calling supporters and campaign volunteers to thank them personally.
In his email to supporters, Halter called his decision to withdraw a "disappointing outcome for our campaign today" but said he and his wife, Shanti, chose to focus on positives such as the overwhelming support voters gave his 2008 proposal to create a state lottery to fund college scholarships.
"Thousands of students who never considered college an option are now pursuing opportunities to achieve a better future for themselves, their families, and our entire state," he said.
During his gubernatorial campaign, Halter advocated creating a new scholarship program, The Arkansas Promise, that would provide every student who graduates from an Arkansas high school with a grade-point average of 2.5 or higher a full-tuition scholarship to attend a public or private college or university in the state.
Halter indicated he intends to stay in Arkansas.
"Shanti and I are proud to be raising our daughters here and we’ll continue to do all we can to build a brighter future for them and for all Arkansans," he said.
Ross said in a written statement Monday, "Bill Halter called me this morning and told me his decision to exit the governor’s race.I thanked him for his many years of service to the state of Arkansas, and said that I hope he continues to pursue public service. It’s clear Bill loves Arkansas and cares deeply for the people of this great state.
"I am honored by his kind comments in support of my candidacy for governor. I am proud to have his support, and I welcome all of his supporters to join our campaign focused on Arkansas’ future.
"Holly and I send Bill, Shanti and his entire family all our best."
Ross is now the only Democrat in the governor’s race. Former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, Little Rock businessman Curtis Coleman and state Rep. Debra Hobbs, R-Rogers, are seeking the Republican nomination for governor.
Term limits prohibit Beebe from seeking a third term.
The governor, the titular head of the state Democratic Party, would not speculate Monday how Halter’s departure from the Democratic primary would affect the party.
"I’m not getting in the middle of whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. We’ll just let it all settle out and see what happens," said Beebe, who served with Ross in the state Senate but did not count Halter among his political allies.
Art English, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said Halter’s decision is good news for the Democratic Party and probably a good decision for Halter.
"A divisive primary, as he pointed out, is not going to be good for the Democratic Party," English said, adding that the decision also allows Halter to show his party that he is "a team player."
He said Halter could be a credible contender for a congressional seat, either in 2014 or in 2016, when there is a chance that Hillary Clinton could run for president.
"If you look at the Democratic bench, he’s at the top of the bench," English said.
Reporter Peter Urban in the Stephens Washington Bureau contributed to this report.