Four years ago, Missouri Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon was elected by 19 points: a landslide. But this time around, it may not be so easy for him. Some polls show St. Louis businessman and Republican gubernatorial candidate Dave Spence within striking distance of the Governor. The race has been personal at times, but it’s primarily been about one overarching issue: jobs.
Dave Spence owns a couple of plastics businesses. One of those businesses is Alpha Packaging.
“What we’re doing is we’re cycling about every 17 seconds 22 bottles out of there," Spence said as he led a couple members of the media around his factory. "It goes from molten to being cooled down in about 17 seconds.”
Alpha Packaging makes over a billion bottles a year. The bottles are shipped to pharmaceutical and cosmetic businesses and end up in stores like Walgreens and Bed Bath and Beyond.
Spence ran the business for 27 years. He stepped down as president last year so he could run for governor.
But Spence returned to the factory a couple weeks ago to give tours to the media in an attempt to showcase his experience creating jobs. Spence says Alpha Packaging now employs about 800 people.
Spence has repeatedly said that his business experience would prepare him for the gubernatorial position. After the tour, I asked him if he thought the role of government is any different than the role of a business.
“I don’t think it needs to be. I don’t think it needs to be a different atmosphere. The governor is truly the CEO of the state. No one governor does everything by themselves -- You surround yourself with good people and you lead them, it’s no different than a business.”
How is Missouri's economy doing?
Nixon has repeatedly touted Missouri’s unemployment rate, which is now less than 7 percent, the lowest it’s been in almost 4 years. For some context, that’s almost a full percentage point less than the national unemployment rate.
But Spence says the numbers are misleading.
“Our true unemployment is 9 percent," Spence said. "And if you really dig deep, our true, true unemployment with people who have given up or dropped out of the work force is 14 percent.”
But economist Jack Strauss with Saint Louis University disagrees.
“You can’t really use that as a problem because that problem is just everywhere," Strauss said. "It is a fact that our unemployment rate is lower than the national average."
Strauss says Missouri compares favorably to the other Midwest states.
"Our (Missouri's) economy is doing not fantastic of course, but reasonably well,” Strauss said.
Strauss says our unemployment rate is good, but where Missouri isn’t stellar is job growth. Strauss says that could be due to an aging population, but re-iterates that we are still 16th in the nation in economic growth.
Right to Work
Spence says Missouri’s economy would be better with Right to Work legislation, and he’s proud that none of his businesses are unionized.
Right to Work refers to a law that would prohibit union members and employers from agreeing to make union dues a requisite of employment. It’s been a contentious issue in the gubernatorial race – and one that Nixon was eager to bring up at a union rally in St. Louis.
“My opponent has said that the first thing he would do is pass Right to Work legislation,” Nixon told the hundreds of union workers, eliciting boos in response.
“Right to Work will not happen on my watch," Nixon promised.
Nixon hasn’t made many campaign visits to St. Louis, instead electing to do more gubernatorial events, like handing out awards to farmers and cutting ribbons at new businesses.
But many of the campaign events he has done around St. Louis have been union events. Last week he was in Wentzville talking to auto workers -- bragging that Ford and GM would be bringing over 3 thousand new jobs to the state, and touting the unemployment rate.
“That’s the 2nd largest drop of any state in the country since I’ve been sworn in," Nixon said. "It was 8.6 when I was sworn in, it’s 6.9 now. We’re not done, but boy we’re headed in a direction that clearly sees us continuing to work."
Accusations and Defamation
But this race has occasionally deviated from jobs talk. At a forum in Columbia, Nixon became visibly red after Spence accused him of being in the pocket of labor unions and attorneys that have contributed to his campaign.
Spence’s campaign is funded largely by his own personal wealth. He’s donated $6 million out of his own pocket to his campaign.
Nixon has received large sums of money from labor unions, law firms and businesses. The Republican Governors Association and the Democratic Governors Association have each donated over $2 million to their respective candidate.
Around the time of the forum, Nixon released his first attack ad, criticizing Spence for his bank accepting a TARP bailout that hasn’t been paid back yet.
Spence issued a cease and desist letter to stations airing the ad, saying the ad was false because he’s not a banker, and because his bank accepted the TARP funds before he joined the Board.
Nixon responded by releasing another attack ad on the bailout. In turn, Spence sued Nixon’s campaign for defamation. That lawsuit is still in contention.
Nixon and Spence are joined by Libertarian party candidate Jim Higgins. Higgins wants to lower taxes and is against all tax subsidies and tax credits.
Follow Chris McDaniel on Twitter: @csmcdaniel
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