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Trio of Republicans struggle to boost name recognition in primary for secretary of state

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 18, 2012 - With three sitting lawmakers touting their expertise and accomplishments, the GOP primary for secretary of state isn’t nearly as contentious as, say, the Republican contest for lieutenant governor or the Democratic battle for the 1st congressional district. Instead, candidates are trying to convince the GOP faithful that they have the professional and political backgrounds to take over the office being vacated by Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, a Democrat.

While House Speaker Pro Tem Shane Schoeller, R-Willard, has raised the most money so far, state Sens. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, and Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, have enough to remain competitive. Schoeller and Rupp are hoping their home bases in Republican strongholds will be a big help, while Stouffer is banking on the support of voters in outstate Missouri.

The secretary of state has important responsibilities: The officeholder is responsible for running the state’s elections, as well as registering businesses and monitoring securities. Several officeholders have used the position as a springboard to higher office.

The winner of the primary will almost certainly face state Rep. Jason Kander, a Democrat from Kansas City who has raised more money than any of the GOP contenders.

Similarities and differences

The three candidates have similar positions on issues relevant to the office. All three, for instance, support a government-issued photo ID to vote. They also have been critical of how Carnahan’s office has crafted summaries for statewide ballot items. And all three are angling to make the state more “business friendly.”

But there are some nuances. For instance, Schoeller proposed a “Fair Ballot Commission” to review ballot summary language. Schoeller said such a commission would be a better avenue than lengthy proceedings in court.

“This would be a volunteer citizens’ commission that would be bipartisan,” Schoeller said. “And it would be able to look at the language and review it. And if they believe and agree that the language is misleading, confusing or biased, they would have the opportunity to re-write that language and submit it back.

“I think that truly adds an element to the current way we write ballot language,” he added. “It’s making sure the citizens’ voice has a strong say in it when they believe it’s necessary.”

Both Rupp and Stouffer have dismissed such an idea. Stouffer, for instance, said Schoeller’s proposal is just “more big government.”

“The truth of the matter is politicians hide behind boards and commissions,” he said. “And you really need to walk in there and do the job you were asked to do by the people of the state of Missouri. There’s no reason to involve other people.”

Rupp noted that other “bipartisan boards” haven’t always offered up good results. He pointed to the protracted wrangling over state legislative redistricting.

At a debate in Columbia earlier this year, both Rupp and Stouffer criticized Schoeller for sponsoring legislation -- which didn't pass -- that they said would have made it harder for military overseas to vote. Schoeller disagreed, adding he was willing to work with legislators to clarify the language.

Additionally Rupp proposed incorporating “electronic poll books” instead of using large binders with paper. Rupp says he wants to use portable computers or tablet linked to DMV records to verify a person's identity. He added that the technology can take a voter's photo at the polls if somebody's driver's license photo isn't on file.

In terms of the office's other functions, Stouffer said he would pare down the number of business classifications. Schoeller has said he wants to monitor administrative regulations, while Rupp added he wants to emphasize monitoring the state’s securities.

Stouffer also said he would stress customer service, something he says is important for dealing with everyday people who interact with the office.

"I know what the costly delays that are created by bureaucrats that don't know the answer or say 'I'll get back to you' or whatever," Stouffer said. 

From student to master

After Carnahan announced that she would forgo a third term, Schoeller was one of a handful of candidates poised to enter the race.

Schoeller is close to both Roy and Matt Blunt, two Republicans who formerly served as secretary of state. When Matt Blunt was in office in the early 2000s, Schoeller was Blunt's chief administrative aide. He also worked as an aide for now Sen. Roy Blunt.

Those relationships aren’t the only reason Schoeller was seen as a natural candidate. Schoeller hails from southwest Missouri, one of the state's most Republican regions. In a phone interview, Schoeller said that would help his prospects.

“We have been airing on KY3 back home for the past three weeks,” said Schoeller, referring to a TV ad running on a southwest Missouri TV station. “We think that’s important that we’ve been able to go up early and make a presence there in our home base. Southwest Missouri voters have shown time and again that they’re very loyal to people who run from southwest Missouri.”

Schoeller also is leading the three candidates in fund raising, thanks in part to a $150,000 donation from retired financer Rex Sinquefield.

“Not only have we done well in fund raising, we have really had a tremendous grassroots effort that has been going forward since we got in this race,” Schoeller said. “This last weekend, we door-knocked in over 15,000 houses across the state. Previous to that we, knocked on 5,000 doors at a time. We have really put a strong attention making sure we connect with voters.”

Throughout the campaign, Schoeller’s rolled up endorsements from people like former U.S. Attorney John Ashcroft, a former U.S. senator, Missouri governor and Missouri attorney general, also from Springfield. Schoeller said that he was planning to have a St. Louis fundraiser on Thursday with both Ashcroft and state Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield.

He’s also won the support from dozens of state representatives, which he said could be an underrated asset in the race.

“It’s not uncommon [for voters] to say ‘we don’t know who’s running,’” Schoeller said. “And they’ll ask their local representative ‘who do you support?’ And when you have that type of support among your local reps in the local areas, that’s another element of the campaign that I’m proud to have their support and their endorsement."

'Son of the soil'

While none of the three GOP candidates has run statewide before, Stouffer may have had the closest experience; in 2010 he lost a crowded Republican primary for Missouri’s 4th congressional district.

That loss was the one blemish in Stouffer’s political career. He raised some proverbial eyebrows in 2004 when he captured the 21st district state Senate seat, an area of central Missouri that had been represented by a Democrat for years. He went onto win re-election in 2008 by an overwhelming margin.

Still, Stouffer said, he’s still surprised that he’s taken a political path after working as a farmer and serving on the board of MFA, Inc.

“I never dreamed of being a politician,” Stouffer said in a telephone interview. “That was never a goal of mine. And I still cringe when somebody calls me a politician.”

In the Missouri Senate, Stouffer’s known for his chairmanship of the Senate Transportation Committee. He’s also been the lead sponsor of major legislation involving charter schools, as well as an advocate for biodiesel.

Still, Stouffer said that his experience outside of politics is more pertinent preparation for the office. He noted that the secretary of state’s office is a “management office,” as opposed to being legislative.

“What I like about the secretary of state’s office is (that) it's small enough to change the culture,” Stouffer said. “And I am a firm believer in constituent service and serving those that use the office. I’ve worked with churches and cooperatives and schools. And I think that experience will work well in the secretary of state’s office.”

Stouffer has poured in over $160,000 of his own money into his campaign, more than either Schoeller or Rupp. He’s also embarked on an extensive billboard campaign stressing his rural roots: One billboard dubs Stouffer a “son of the soil,” while another prominently features a bloodhound named Duke that’s become an emblem throughout the campaign.

Noting that he has a few more gray hairs than other candidates, Stouffer said he’s not running for the office as a springboard to better his future electoral fortunes. Both Matt and Roy Blunt, as well as Democrat Warren Hearnes, jumped from secretary of state to other offices.

“I bring 25 more years of life experience to the office than my competitors have,” he said. “We believe the same things, but I do think I bring experience to the office. Plus the fact that in my mind the office has too often been used a stepping stone to another office. At my age, I want to be secretary of state because I want to be secretary of state. I love serving the people of Missouri.”

Well-rounded service

Like Scholler, Rupp hails from a fast-growing GOP stronghold. And like Stouffer, Rupp points to his “real life” experience with companies he founded dealing with college preparation and investments. He currently works as a vice president of business development for UMB Bank in O’Fallon.

“We bring real world experience, not just ‘hey, I’m a politician and I’m running for a different office,’” Rupp said.

But Rupp – who was elected to the Missouri Senate in 2006 – said one particular strength is how he’s pushed forward high-profile bills across the finish line. That includes wide-ranging immigration legislation, as well as handling the bill that led to congressional redistricting. He was also the chairman of a committee examining the impact of federal stimulus spending on Missouri.

“We get results on the issues that are important to the taxpayers,” Rupp said. “Whether it’s economic development that’s creating jobs, I’ve done that in the private sector and we’ve done things in the Senate to make Missouri a better place to create jobs. We’ve been fighting illegal immigration – I wrote all the illegal immigration laws in the state. And that made the secretary of state the chief enforcer of those laws.”

Although Rupp may have a foothold in the St. Louis region, he notes that his advocacy to pass a mandate for insurance companies to cover care for autism sparked support in places far from home.

“Obviously me being from a fast-growing area, a very strong No. 1 Republican vote-producing county in the state… will be great,” he said. “The other thing that we have is we have a natural constituency across the state of the kids and families we’ve helped with developmental disabilities and autism.

“We’ve done so much in that field for the last several years that we walk into a community where we’re not known and there’s already an organized group saying, ‘Hey, thank you for helping out my children – what can we do for you to help,’” Rupp said.

Rupp is also touting an endorsement from Missouri Right to Life -- the only Republican candidate in the contest to receive the endorsement.

"That does play very, very large," Rupp said. "And for me, it's just a basic value decision."

Kander waits for dust to settle

The winner of the primary will almost certainly face Kander, who has more cash on hand than the other three candidates combined. Kander has all but ignored his primary competitor MD Alam, a Kansas City resident who’s garnered undesirable headlines in the last few weeks when he said that no Jews died in the 9/11 attacks.

(Alam also received an endorsement from Missouri Right to Life.)

In the general election, the issue of a photo ID for voters could be an important issue. Republican say such a requirement is a buffer against fraud, Democrats such as Kander have argued that it amounts to voter suppression of minorities, the elderly and the poor. They’ve also questioned whether there’s been widespread voter impersonation fraud throughout the state.

The three Republicans say the tranquil tone of the primary campaign is fine with them. Rupp described the race thus far as “civil,” while Schoeller said he's focused on pointing out his strengths instead of tearing other candidates down.

Stouffer said candidates in a down-ballot contest such as secretary of state need to increase their own name identification instead of attacking opponents.

“I told somebody the other day that primaries and [legislative sessions] are kind of like a pregnancy,” Stouffer said. “At some point, it’s time to get it over with. So we’re approaching that. I think we’ll all be relieved when it’s over with and move on.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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