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Can a Democratic governor and Republican legislature find bipartisan happiness?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 6, 2008 - When U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., ran for governor against Matt Blunt in 2004, she wound up regretting that she'd paid too little attention to rural voters in the state. She swamped Blunt in urban areas, but he beat her by about 3 percentage points because he carried rural Missouri by a landslide.

Governor-elect Jay Nixon didn't make that same mistake.

He paid careful attention to rural voters, even embarking on a "rural tour" of the state during the final weeks of the campaign. The value of that strategy was evident Tuesday when Nixon took about 58 percent of the vote in his race against U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, R-Mo.

Nixon didn't prevail in every rural county. Hulshof ran strong, for example, in some of the 11 Bootheel counties, winning in six of them: Bollinger, Butler, Cape Girardeau, Mississippi, Scott and Stoddard. He also took the entire lower section of southwest Missouri, which includes Springfield, and the upper northeast section of the state as well.

Nixon has to govern with the opposition party controlling both the state House and Senate. A party needs 82 votes to control the House. Before Tuesday's election, the 163-member Missouri House consisted of 89 Republicans, 70 Democrats and four vacancies. After the election, the GOP still controlled 89 seats, while the Democrats controlled 74. Republicans enjoyed a 20-seat majority in the 34-member Senate before the election and held a 23-seat majority after the election.

Democratic governor plus GOP legislature can equal problems

Former Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, has experience dealing with a legislature controlled by Republicans. He says the going can be tough.

"It was a very difficult time," says Holden who now runs a public policy institute bearing his name at Webster University. "We had several financial problems in the state. We had some Republican leaders who were difficult to deal with and some Democrats who were also difficult to deal with."

The differences during the Holden administration stemmed in part from fiscal issues. Holden had the misfortune to take the reins when the state's economy took a nose dive following 9/11. Because of the revenue shortfall and the uncertainty of the state's financial picture, Holden made some tough decisions, withholding money for some programs, including education.That action didn't sit well with Republicans in particular.

Holden thinks things are different now. He believes that political leaders "more fully appreciate" the situation Missouri faced at that time and wouldn't engage in that kind of bickering.

Nixon is also inheriting some unusual fiscal challenges that could spell trouble. The state's financial health is under stress because of an unusual set of national economic problems, ranging from a mortgage crisis, credit crunch, bankruptcies and high unemployment, all bearing heavily on Missouri.

These developments, still in the making, could mean Nixon might have to swallow some difficult budget choices. He hasn't said how he might amend his campaign promises, such as restoring Medicaid cuts, in the event economic conditions worsen. Throughout the campaign, Nixon argued that budgets are about priorities and suggested that money could be moved around to give higher priorities to some issues, such as health care, than they got during the Blunt administration.

One thing in Nixon's favor, however, is the broad bipartisan support he received. His performance Tuesday was exceptional, pulling in support across every part of the state. Even with his lopsided victory, however, Republicans in particular do not see the outcome as a mandate for Nixon. That means the new governor won't have an easy time getting his proposals through a House and Senate still dominated by Republicans, says Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

"My guess is that this will not be an easy relationship," he says. "The Republicans will have to adapt to the notion of dealing with a Democratic governor. The new governor will have to deal with a GOP majority, and he won't get everything he wants."

Upcoming health-care debate

At the top of Nixon's list is a restoration of health benefits that Blunt eliminated in 2005.

Majority Floor Leader Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, says Nixon can forget about that one, even though Tilley stresses that Republicans want to have a good relationship with the new governor.

"We've already tried the health-care proposal that Jay Nixon has," Tilley says, "and it bankrupted the state. We've already been down that road, and it doesn't work."

Asked if Nixon's 58 percent support in the election translated into a mandate, Tilley says, "Absolutely not. If that were the case, voters wouldn't have elected strong Republican majorities in the House and Senate."

Tilley said the message is that voters wanted Nixon to be their governor, wanted Republicans to control both chambers and wanted both parties to work together. He added that voters trusted Republicans because the party's candidates better handled the state's budget problems and provided the steady fiscal management that has led to job growth.

At the same time, Tilley stressed that Republicans want to avoid partisanship and work on issues in which both sides have a common interest.

"I think economic development is an area where we can work together, to help anyone who wants a job find work," he says. "We can also work to make health care affordable to everyone."

The latter comment suggests Republicans may be willing to reach a compromise on some of Nixon's health-care proposals. But they're likely to resist restoring services to all Medicaid recipients who lost benefits in 2005.

Without being specific at this point, Tilley says, "We're going to support Jay Nixon on what we think he's right about and will oppose him when we think he's wrong. But we expect to have a good relationship with the new governor."

Speaker Pro Tem Bryan Pratt, R-Blue Springs, also is hopeful but adds that lack of money may doom some of Nixon's proposals:

"At this point, we're committed to working with the governor to see where we can find common ground. My hope is that we can agree on economic development issues and agree that now is not the time for a tax increase. You can only spend what you got. I'm just waiting to see his (Nixon's) ideas and how he intends to pay for what he will propose."

Mandate to cooperate?

Meanwhile, John Temporiti, chair of the Missouri Democratic Party, says voters sent a clear message for Republicans to cooperate with Democrats in the next legislative session.

Rep. Rachel Storch, chair of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, adds that Nixon's victory is a mandate for change.

"Voters want something very different from what we've had in the last four years," Storch said. "Jay is guided by common sense, he's a known entity and Missouri voters trust him."

In Nixon's favor, she adds, is his generally strong bipartisan support in winning re-elections as attorney general. 

Although Nixon hasn't spoken about his strategy, Storch says he may make overtures to leaders from both parties and that he might even appoint a Republican to his cabinet, though she stressed that she had heard nothing along that line.

Holden said Nixon could make overtures by meeting with leaders of both parties, laying out his agenda, getting their input, and discussing different ways to approach the problems. Out of this, Holden says a bipartisan coalition could be developed.

He says the appointment of a GOP member to the Nixon cabinet could be a possibility, but adds that appointment couldn't be simply symbolic but must be someone who brings exceptional qualifications and experience to the position to help the Nixon administration solve problems.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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