On television, Missouri’s two major candidates for governor — Democrat Chris Koster and Republican Eric Greitens — pretend their rival doesn’t exist.
Both men are running pleasant biographical ads that highlight the best of their respective personal and professional backgrounds.
Koster, currently the Missouri attorney general, emphasizes his experience as a prosecutor, and his commitment to fiscal discipline. Greitens, who is making his first bid for public office, recounts his past as a Navy SEAL, and the success of a nonprofit he helped establish, called The Mission Continues, to help returning veterans.
But in speeches, interviews and on Twitter, it’s a different story. Greitens calls Koster “a corrupt politician who’s been in office over 20 years. He’s a big-spending liberal like Hillary Clinton. This guy spent over $3.2 million to redecorate his office.”
Koster offers this description of Greitens: “An individual who is a motivational speaker by trade and who has offered no policy solution for the state of Missouri, has little exhibited knowledge and appears to hold forth ignorance as his calling card for the job.”
It’s as if the two men are running two dual campaigns: one positive and one negative.
Matt Carlson, an associate professor of communication at Saint Louis University, says that’s not surprising as the ways to target voters have changed.
“The television ads are reaching a public that is just now starting to pay attention,’’ Carlson said. “Speeches and social media are reaching the people who are already watching.”
With the positive ads, each candidate is seeking to define himself before the opposition weighs in. Their attacks in speeches and online may be intended, in part, to test jabs that might end up later on TV.
The two-pronged approach is just one of the new aspects of this year’s campaigns — especially for governor.
If tradition were followed, most Missouri candidates would be spending August healing any internal-party wounds left from possibly divisive Aug. 2 primaries, making money-raising calls — and perhaps taking a little vacation.
There’d be few, if any, TV ads because August was generally vacation time for would-be voters, as well.
But that’s under the old campaign setup, where candidates didn’t begin hitting the road or going up on TV until after Labor Day.
In 2016, it’s obvious that some of the rules have changed.
Blame the Olympics?
Neither state party has held any sort of unity event this month, despite the notably nasty four-way Republican primary for governor. (There’s talk of lingering bitterness among some losers, although Greitens singles out former House Speaker Catherine Hanaway for her gracious help in recent weeks.)
Koster and Greitens swiftly went on the air with a barrage of positive TV ads, filling August TV airwaves. Both also have hit the campaign trail, with news conferences and rallies to promote endorsements from key groups.
Koster is highlighting a series of endorsements he's received from various agricultural groups, including the Missouri Farm Bureau, who usually favor Republicans. Greitens has the support of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, and such Republican luminaries as retired U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo.
Carlson, by the way, says the Olympics in Rio deserve some blame for this month’s blitz of political activity, on a state and national level.
Because the Olympics were in August, the Republican and Democratic presidential conventions were held in July — earlier than recent cycles. (The 2012 conventions, for example, were held in late August and early September.)
“The Olympics threw off the schedule,’’ Carlson said.
Once this year’s conventions were over, he continued, both presidential campaigns quickly geared up and haven’t stopped. Missouri top contests for governor and U.S. Senate followed suit.
As a result, the professor said the level of political activity — national and state — “feels like mid-fall.”
Both gubernatorial candidates are keeping up with one post-primary tradition: Raising campaign cash.
Since the Aug. 2 primary, Koster — who has more money overall — has collected at least $425,000 in large donations of more than $5,000 apiece. His largest post-primary contribution was $100,000 from the International Union of Operating Engineers.
Greitens has collected three times as much — $1.5 million — since the primary. But that’s primarily due to $1 million he received on Aug. 11 from the Republican Governors Association.
The RGA also launched an anti-Koster attack ad soon after the primary, asserting that he “dished out $1 million in pay raises for his staff, snagged $3 million for an office makeover, and billed Missouri taxpayers $100,000 for his jetting around.”
Koster has countered that he increased pay for staff lawyers to bring their salaries more in line with the market, and that the $3.2 million spent on Jefferson City office repairs came from a federal grant and money recovered from consumer fraud cases. His campaign sent over photos of the peeling plaster, paint and rundown office conditions.
One of Koster’s positive ads doesn’t mention that controversy, but notes that during his eight years in office, he’s operated his office $30 million under budget.
As for Greitens, a group aligned with the Democratic Governors Association spent an estimated $1 million on attack ads that noted one of his top donors is involved in a court fight over accusations that the donor sexually abused a woman. But those ads ran before the Aug. 2 primary. It wouldn’t be surprising if the DGA pays for more anti-Greitens ads before November.