On the Trail: Candidates hone their election year messaging at Lincoln Days | St. Louis Public Radio

On the Trail: Candidates hone their election year messaging at Lincoln Days

Feb 29, 2016

Few events on Missouri’s political calendar truly compare to Lincoln Days. The statewide soirée is a chance to hear messaging from the state’s Republican faithful – and an even grander opportunity to fill out one of John Combest’s bingo cards.

For political reporters, Lincoln Days is a good time to catch up with some of the Missouri’s top Republican leaders in an informal setting. Some of the best political tidbits are exchanged within crowded hallways or in creatively decorated hospitality suites – especially the secret to marshaling the perfect ice cream scoop.

So to continue the theme of tying up loose political ends, here are some Lincoln Day observations that have nothing whatsoever to do with Donald Trump:

Shadow of Ferguson

At the tail end of the last Ferguson Commission meeting, Commission co-chairman Starsky Wilson delivered a stirring address calling for Missouri’s class of candidates to provide more than just lip service to what he called a “people’s agenda” of policy change. 

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder has been critical of how Gov. Jay Nixon handled the aftermath of Michael Brown's shooting death.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Well, some Missouri Republicans are paying attention – but probably not in the way Wilson or other St. Louis area policymakers wanted. Several candidates alluded to the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting death not as a rallying cry for change, but rather a textbook case of leadership failure.

For example: GOP gubernatorial hopeful Eric Greitens contended the “crisis and lawlessness in Ferguson” was fueled “by the absent leadership of our attorney general.” And Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder said in his speech that political leaders should never again “turn our streets over to the criminals and the vandals, the looters and those who throw firebombs.” And former U.S. Attorney and House Speaker Catherine Hanaway's hospitality suite was a tribute to police officers, a reference to her "Safe and Strong" tour that incorporates support for a law enforcement as a dominant theme.

And it wasn’t just Missouri candidates who brought up Ferguson. U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton told the Lincoln Days crowd on Friday night that “security isn’t just something that happens abroad, but it’s the fundamental responsibility of government right here at home as well.” The Arkansas Republican declared that “for too long, for almost two years now, the Democratic Party has maligned and stigmatized law enforcement officers all across this country starting right here in Ferguson.”

"And it’s time for the Republican Party to put an end to it,” Cotton said.

Tough talk

Organizers for Lincoln Days allowed all four gubernatorial aspirants to speak on Friday and Saturday night. On the night this reporter attended, Greitens speech featured a bit more than just “red meat” for the dinner crowd. 

GOP gubernatorial candidate Eric Greitens and his wife Sheena listen to speeches during the Lincoln Day banquet in Maryland Heights.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

The best-selling author and co-founder of The Mission Continues used part of his speech to criticize what he saw as the excesses of the Missouri Republican Party. He contended that voters were starting to get fed up with how some in the GOP-controlled Missouri General Assembly behaved.

He also said voters have “been turned off by the nastiness of our campaigns,” adding that “they are ready for us to step forward and get results for them.”

“We have super-majorities in the House and the Senate. And I admire [Speaker Todd Richardson’s] effort to pass meaningful ethics reform,” Greitens said. “I can tell you that as I travel around the state, people want us to restore trust in government. They know that it was our speaker last year who resigned in disgrace. They know that it was under our party and our leadership that official legislative hearings were held in a country club with food that was paid for by lobbyists. This is something that I hear from people as I travel around the state.”

Greitens’ tough messaging brought to mind then-state Auditor Tom Schweich’s 2013 Lincoln Days address, when he provided a biting critique of the party’s dismal performance in the 2012 statewide election cycle. Friday, of course, was the one-year anniversary of Schweich’s suicide.

Rally around the banner

In response to Schweich’s tragic death, some Republican statewide candidates have promised to run less acrimonious campaigns. But given the amount of money and energy and work that goes into winning a statewide campaign in Missouri, it’s hard to imagine that negativity will completely vanish over the next few months. (In fact, there’s already been some pretty heated sparring in the state's GOP battles for governor and attorney general.)  

Peter Kinder talks while, from left, Eric Greitens, Catherine Hanaway and John Brunner listen at the Republican gubernatorial forum at this weekend's Lincoln. Days.
Credit Jo Mannies | St. Louis Public Radio

But Missouri Republican Party Chairman John Hancock said on Friday that all of the statewide contenders (and there are a lot of them) promised to attend a unity event after the August primary. Not only did the bevy of candidates promise to attend the shindig, but Hancock added they also pledged to endorse the GOP ticket.

Hancock ran for secretary of state unsuccessfully in 1992 and 1996, so he knows firsthand how divisive primaries can be.

“The big part of it is to ask these candidates and to get a commitment,” Hancock said. “There’s very little a chairman can do to truly be helpful. These candidates are running their own campaigns. They’ve got their own organizations. But one of the things where there’s a proper role for the chairman is help heal and unify the party after a primary election. And I thought it was important to look these candidates in the eye and ask them to commit to this. And each and every one of them to their credit did so immediately today. So that’s a good day for us.”

Secret weapon?

Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft spent a good deal of time Friday and Saturday mingling with the masses. While Ashcroft has generally stayed out of the political fray since leaving President George W. Bush’s administration, he’s spent the last two election cycles stumping for his son Jay Ashcroft. (Jay Ashcroft unsuccessfully ran for the state Senate in 2014. He’s currently running against state Sen. Will Kraus, R-Lee’s Summit, for secretary of state.) 

Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft spent the weekend mingling with the GOP faithful. His son, Jay Ashcroft, is running for secretary of state.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

While John Ashcroft’s statewide record is not unblemished (he lost a 1974 bid for auditor and his 2000 re-election bid to the U.S. Senate), it is nevertheless impressive: He won five elections for attorney general, governor and U.S. senator. He is the only Republican ever to be re-election to a consecutive term.

So it’s not surprising that Jay Ashcroft knows a lot about the grind of running for statewide office, adding that "nothing of really lasting consequence or importance is ever done easily.” But the younger Ashcroft noted that he had a unique plan to spreading out across the Show Me State.

“I went to a lot of Lincoln Days and political activities. It’s what the family did,” Jay Aschroft said. “There were times when my mother’s twin sister would come into town. They’d get their haircut the same way. Dad would go to one political event one night, mom would go to another political event and her sister would take the kids to a third political event so we could cover as many political events at a time" as possible.


Ludicrous Speed, Go!

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt’s Friday night speech focused primarily on criticizing President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. But throughout the policy-heavy address, Blunt was able to stick in a reference to a somewhat well-regarded Mel Brooks film. 

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt enjoys referencing the movie Spaceballs in his campaign speeches.
Credit File photo | Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Blunt channeled the film Spaceballs when he declared that “ludicrous speed is the speed that the government regulators are now at.” The Missouri Republican explained that “ludicrous speed” was the descriptor for a velocity faster than “light speed.”

Wayward Missouri political reporter Eli Yokley noted that Blunt has made similar allusions before. But apparently his son, Andy Blunt, doesn't share an affinity for the movie.

“Andy’s leaving now,” Blunt quipped. “My son really hates it when I bring up Spaceballs.”

For the record, this reporter has no opinion on the value of Spaceballs,  as I’ve never watched the entire film. Perhaps Blunt's likely Democratic opponent -- Secretary of State Jason Kander -- can throw in a Blazing Saddles reference when he hits the stump.

Four score

Lincoln Days would feel somewhat incomplete without an appearance from George Engelbach, a Jefferson County native who attends Missouri GOP events dress up like Abraham Lincoln. 

Jefferson County Councilman George Engelbach has been a mainstay at Lincoln Days for years. Attendees often like to take pictures with Engelbach, because he resembles President Abraham Lincoln.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Besides emulating Honest Abe, Engelbach is a member of the Jefferson County Council. And this year, his opponent is former state Rep. Jeff Roorda – a Barnhart Democrat who’s developed a boisterous reputation as of late for his advocacy for law enforcement.

No word yet, though, if Engelbach and Roorda will participate in a debate. If they do, it could make the rhetorical showdowns between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas look quaint by comparison.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.