Democrats may be deciding between "fight or flight" when it comes to taking on state Auditor Tom Schweich in November.
Last week, state Rep. Jay Swearingen, D-North Kansas City, bowed out of the state auditor's contest. He told the Associated Press that he wanted to step aside for another Democrat who's better able to raise money for the race.
The clock is ticking. Candidate filing runs from Feb. 25 to March 25. Missouri Democrats have a strategic choice to make.
The party could field a credible candidate with the experience and money to force Schweich to fight for re-election. Or it could effectively give the Republican officeholder a pass – and focus its time and attention elsewhere.
Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Roy Temple said in an interview that timing and the fact Schweich has $650,000 in the bank "introduces uncertainty that might make it slightly more difficult to attract a top-tier candidate." But he emphasized the party isn't conceding anything just yet.
"While politically speaking, I don’t view Tom Schweich as particularly awe-inspiring, it is not a trivial thing that he already has a substantial sum of money in the bank," Temple said. "And that will probably be a factor for some people as they evaluate whether to enter the race at this point, given that they would start with a pretty significant fundraising disadvantage. I’m sure they would be assessing how quickly they could make that up."
Democrats do have options though if they choose to fight. Here are some hypothetical possibilities:
State Treasurer Clint Zweifel: The Florissant native can’t run for re-election in 2016 because of constitutional term limits. But he has options -- and plenty of goodwill -- after deciding early not to run for governor.
Zweifel’s name has been linked to the 2016 races for lieutenant governor or U.S. Senate. But he could quickly parlay his experience running for statewide office to challenge Schweich. And if he wins, it gives Gov. Jay Nixon a chance to appoint Zweifel's successor -- who could, in turn, have a leg up in any 2016 contest.
Pros: Zweifel could probably raise the money and organization to be competitive. And Zweifel wouldn't have to vacate the treasurer's office to run.
Cons: With $259,818 in the bank, Zweifel is behind Schweich in fundraising. It may be a safer bet for him to build up resources and support for 2016 bid than to change gears and enter the auditor’s race.
State Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton: While Sifton may not have Zweifel’s experience in running for – and winning – statewide office, he’s earned his stripes in taking on incumbents.
Sifton slogged through a competitive Democratic primary to unseat state Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay. It was no easy feat: Lembke is renowned for being a hard-working campaigner. Sifton's experience in beating a tough opponent could serve him well going up against Schweich.
Pros: Sifton’s recent experience in a competitive legislative race is helpful. And like Zweifel, Sifton wouldn’t have to give up his current position to run against Schweich.
Cons: Running for the state Senate is an entirely different proposition from running statewide. During his appearance on the Politically Speaking podcast, Sifton emphasized that he was not looking to run for another office. “My constituents should know that I’m focused on the legislative matters in front of me and serving them,” he said. “That’s my focus.”
Rep. John Wright, D-Rocheport: Wright has been linked to a statewide run ever since he won a competitive battle in 2012 for a mid-Missouri House seat.
The Yale-educated attorney spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money to defeat Republican Mitch Richards.
Pros: For one thing, Wright's ability to fund his own campaign could mute Schweich’s financial advantage. And Wright may tap into a different geographical slice of voters than a candidate from St. Louis or Kansas City.
Cons: Wright would have to give up his seat in the Missouri House to run. Besides leaving his district vulnerable for a Republican takeover, Wright may blow a future race in 2016 if he’s unsuccessful against Schweich.
Dave Drebes of Missouri Scout wrote a few weeks ago that Wright was eyeing the treasurer’s office – which, as noted earlier, will be an open race in 2016.
St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green: Green has the potential to transition relatively seamlessly into the state auditor’s office. After all, Green's job as comptroller makes her the chief fiscal officer for one of the state's largest cities.
Additionally, Green possesses a fairly impressive electoral record: While St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay had to fight to win a fourth consecutive term, Green faced no Democratic opposition in her bid for a fifth full term.
If Green seeks out and wins the Democratic nomination, she would be the first African-American woman to be a statewide nominee.
Pros: With nearly $200,000 of cash on hand, Green would have a reasonably good fundraising start. Her role as vice chairwoman of the Missouri Democratic Party could give her the statewide contacts she needs to run an organized campaign.
Cons: While Green has good name recognition in St. Louis, she would have to move quickly to make herself known throughout the rest of the state. She would also have to fundraise more aggressively, as she didn’t raise any money during the last fundraising quarter. And like Zweifel, her cash on hand total is still far less than Schweich's.
St. Louis Collector of Revenue Gregory F.X. Daly: If Democrats are truly looking for a candidate who has enough money to mount a statewide campaign, Daly might fit the bill.
With roughly $615,000 on hand, Daly is almost tied with Schweich when it comes to money in the bank. In fact, Daly’s total is more than what Zweifel and Secretary of State Jason Kander have in the bank – combined.
Pros: Daly has the money to run statewide. And like Green, Daly may also be able to net votes in the populous St. Louis region.
Cons: Daly is up for re-election in 2014, so he’d have to leave an easily winnable office to run a riskier race. It’s far more likely that Daly would run for another city office than to turn his attention statewide.
A sacrificial lamb: OK, it's unlikely that Democrats could legally run an actual lamb as a candidate. But there is some logic behind running a lesser-known candidate against Schweich.
With the exception of Schweich’s victory against incumbent state Auditor Susan Montee, down-ballot statewide officials rarely lose re-election. That might be why Republicans chose not to field well-funded candidates against then-Secretary of State Robin Carnahan in 2008 or against then-Attorney General Jay Nixon in 1996, 2000 or 2004.
It may benefit Democrats to direct organizational and financial resources to state legislative races – instead of running against an incumbent statewide officer with a lot of money.
There is some risk. If Schweich’s re-election is assured, he may give some of his time or money to other candidates. That type of assistance could position Schweich well if he runs for governor in 2016. (Schweich has repeatedly stated that his focus is on 2014 and others should stop looking to 2016.)
"Anything’s a possibility," said Temple, when asked whether it's possible Democrats may not field a strong candidate against Schweich. "I may get a phone call after we hang up from a billionaire who says ‘I want to be state auditor and I’ve dreamed of being state auditor since I was a child. And I’m willing to put in $500 million to do it.’ That’s possible. It’s unlikely. And it’s also possible we’ll go out and look for a strong candidate. And for a variety of reasons, that may not work."
"There's a wide range of possibilities," he added.
Potential Democratic hopefuls don’t have a lot of time: Filing begins for the August primary in late February.
"We’ve got what? Nine or 10 weeks until filing closes?" Temple said. "That’s not a long time to make a commitment to something that is all-absorbing for a year of your life."
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.