Missouri Primary Is a Free-For-All

By: - August 4, 2008 12:00 am

Missouri is the state of the perpetual campaign this year. Its presidential primary in February helped propel Barack Obama and John McCain to their parties’ presidential nominations, and its general election in November will help determine who wins the White House.

In between is Tuesday’s (Aug. 5) statewide primary for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and treasurer. Other states have primaries in August and September but few match Missouri ‘s in intensity and drama.

One of the Republican candidates for governor is trying to become the first woman elected to the job. A candidate in the three-way Democratic race for attorney general switched parties last year. One of the three people seeking the Democratic nomination for state treasurer is a doctor, lawyer, stockbroker, former mayor of Kansas City-and 81 years old. There’s even a Nixon on the ballot.

The incumbent GOP governor, Matt Blunt, touched off the political free-for-all in January when he announced he would not seek a second term because he wanted to spend more time with his family. The 37-year-old governor, the nation’s youngest when elected four years ago, may have had trouble winning reelection because polls show a majority of Missourians view him unfavorably.

Blunt’s exit led the state treasurer, Sarah Steelman , to seek the GOP nomination for governor, clearing the treasurer’s job for a new occupant. U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R) also filed for governor, opening his 9 th District congressional seat. Five Republicans and four Democrats are competing Tuesday for their respective parties’ nominations to succeed Hulshof.

On the Democratic side, the state’s attorney general, Jay Nixon (D), had already declared his candidacy for governor, which has opened his seat .

The free-for-all has dominated the airwaves this summer. Obama and presumptive GOP nominee John McCain also have been advertising on Missouri TV stations and have appeared frequently in the state, giving Missouri ‘s six million residents an excess of politics compared to most states. Secretary of State Robin Carnahan estimated Friday (Aug. 1) that turnout would be around 31 percent, high for a primary though short of the 36 percent who voted in the 2004 gubernatorial primary.

The fight between Steelman and Hulshof is Tuesday’s most closely watched contest and tells a larger story about the condition of the Republican Party nationally. The party’s leader, President George W. Bush, is unpopular with a majority of Americans and polls show Republicans’ favorable views of their party have dropped 10 percentage points in the last year mainly because of conservative disenchantment.

“It’s not a generically good year to be running as a Republican,” said L. Marvin Overby , a professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia . “Their brand name has been tarnished, recently by the indictment of (Alaska Sen.) Ted Stevens. There’s a sense the Democrats have the wind at their backs and will be competitive.”

Against this backdrop, Hulshof and Steelman each are trying to persuade GOP primary voters that they would be more electable in the fall election against Nixon, who faces token opposition Tuesday from a factory worker.

“Most voters will walk into the booth and vote for the candidate who they think can beat Nixon,” predicted former state GOP chairman Woody Cozad.

Steelman’s strategy has been to tap into voter discontent with Congress by portraying Hulshof, who has served six terms, as a Washington insider while presenting herself as an outsider who wants to shake up the political establishment. She has relentlessly attacked Hulshof for his support of earmarks-projects slipped into spending bills by individual congressmen.

Hulshof, 50, of Columbia , has tried to turn his experience into an asset. A lawyer, Hulshof was a special prosecutor in the state attorney general’s office before he was elected to Congress, beating a Democratic incumbent. The 9 th District covers 25 counties in northeast and central Missouri .

Steelman, 50, of Rolla, is not exactly a political newcomer. She was a state senator before she was elected treasurer and married into one of Missouri ‘s most prominent Republican families. Her husband is a former state senator, her father-in-law was a former state GOP chairman and her sister-in-law was a senior official in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

In Missouri , as in many states, the way to win a Republican primary is by appealing to conservatives. Hulshof and Steelman agree on most issues. They oppose gay marriage; Steelman was a sponsor of an amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage. They are against abortions, tax increases and illegal immigrants and for tax cuts.

“Whether it’s a presidential election or a statewide primary, the way you win a GOP primary is by being more conservative than your opponent,” said George Connor, an associate professor at Missouri State University in Springfield .

In recent weeks, Steelman has played up one key difference between the candidates. Blunt and the Republican-led Missouri Legislature pushed through a requirement that nearly every gallon of gasoline contain 10 percent ethanol, a biofuel made of corn. Hulshof, who is also a corn farmer, supports the mandate. Steelman initially supported the requirement but now says government mandates often drive up prices.

The injection of the ethanol issue late in the campaign has everything to do with Missouri ‘s political geography. To win a statewide GOP primary, a candidate must snare a majority of votes from the St. Louis and Kansas City suburbs, the rural middle of the state and southern Missouri , which includes the vast Lake of the Ozarks recreation area.

Hulshof is best known in his northeast and central Missouri congressional district, which includes many corn farmers. Steelman’s base of support is southern Missouri , where there are more farmers raising livestock than growing crops who are paying high prices for corn in part because of the demand created by the increase in ethanol production.

Analysts say the election will be more of a referendum on the candidates’ style. Hulshof, analysts say, is more experienced on the stump. The state’s two major newspapers, the Kansas City Star and the St. Louis Post Dispatch, said in endorsing Hulshof he was better prepared for the office. He has won the backing of almost 70 state lawmakers, U.S. Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond and U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt.

Steelman defends her independent style, saying voters want politicians who stand up for them. Two of Missouri ‘s last four governors were state treasurers, proving the office can be a springboard.

As of July 28, Hulshof had raised .6 million to .2 million for Steelman, enough money for both candidates to compete fairly evenly in the battle for TV air time that often decides campaigns. Also seeking the GOP nomination for governor are Scott Long, a high school teacher, and Jennie Lee Sievers, a retired business owner.

“One of them is going to wake up on the morning after the election and say, ‘Ohmigod, now the real race begins,'” said Overby.

Waiting to take on the winner Tuesday is Nixon, who has collected .2 million in campaign donations, with about million on hand to start the fall campaign.

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Stephen Fehr

Stephen Fehr is a senior officer with Pew’s government performance portfolio. He is a lead writer on many of the products generated by the portfolio, specializing in state and local fiscal health.