Countdown to Missouri's Aug. 5 primary | St. Louis Public Radio

Countdown to Missouri's Aug. 5 primary

Jun 26, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 26, 2008 - Like determined safe crackers, Republicans labored for 84 years before they figured out the combination for breaking the Democrats' lock and taking complete control of state government in Missouri. Republicans already held majorities in the state House and Senate in 2004 when all the numbers fell into place and -- presto! -- Republican Matt Blunt took the governor's seat.

The election that Blunt won over Democrat Claire McCaskill was brutal and close, and the political fight this year promises much of the same -- tough and close. But first Republicans have to get through a rough primary pitting state Treasurer Sarah Steelman against U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof. Because he has only token opposition in his Aug. 5 Democratic primary race for governor, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon is sitting on the sidelines, watching the Steelman-Hulshof match and taking occasional swipes at each of these two potential opponents.

In many ways, the primary and general elections for governor promise to be referendums on the policies of the man who isn't in the race. Blunt shocked his own party when he announced in January that he would not seek re-election, saying he had pretty much accomplished everything he intended to achieve, and had in a single term made the changes he wanted to make.

The most controversial of these changes included far-reaching cuts in Medicaid -- wiping out medical services for more than 90,000 recipients, imposing higher costs on more than 15,000 disabled recipients and on nearly 50,000 children in moderate-income families. Besides the controversy over Medicaid, the Blunt administration came under criticism for allegations that his office routinely destroyed e-mail public records that the law says must be retained and for his sale of assets of the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority.

GOP DEFENDS BLUNT'S POLICIES

Republicans argue that initiatives by Blunt and others have helped to balance the budget, prevent tax hikes and make Missouri stronger. Nixon, on the other hand, says the governor has destroyed the state's safety net for the needy and undermined MOHELA's basic mission of providing low-interest loans to college students.

Look for Nixon to try to tar both Steelman and Hulshof with these issues. Although some budget policies have been eased and Steelman and Hulshof both say some Medicaid cuts need to be reversed, Nixon has derided both GOP contenders, saying the election of either would mean "four more years of Blunt's failed policies."

The two Republicans, meanwhile, seem to deflect much of Nixon's criticism by turning their attention to the party's conservative base and to hot-button issues, such as stem-cell research, immigration and tax cuts. Steelman, meanwhile, has enlivened things a bit by trying to paint Hulshof as an insider who lacks the guts to make hard decisions, citing his support of earmarks in the U.S. House. His response is that she's naive about how the federal government operates.

Whichever Republican nabs the nomination, though, expect him or her to stress independence and distance from Blunt -- much as Sen. John McCain has with regard to President George W. Bush.

PLENTY OF SEATS ARE UP FOR GRABS

Beyond the intra-party rivalry, two factors -- term limits and campaign contributions -- may help decide which candidates are standing when the political dust settles in the August primary. With plenty of House and Senate seats open and up for grabs, Democrats and Republicans are busy staking out districts they hope to defend or take during what promises to be lively and highly competitive campaigns.

It takes 82 votes to run the House. Democrats hold 71 seats; Republicans control 91, with one vacant seat in the 18th district, previously held by a Republican. They hope to protect their number and pick up a few more seats, too. The GOP is projecting a gain of five seats, while Democrats think their chances are better than average for taking back 10 seats, one short of the 11 needed to wrest control from the GOP. These gains wouldn't mean a Democratic majority, but they would reinforce the party's argument that it is slowly winning back the 163-member House.

In the 36-member state Senate, Republicans control 19 seats, the Democrats 15. Some analysts see between four and seven races being competitive.

GOP VULNERABILITY IN ST. CHARLES COUNTY?

One area where Democrats believe Republicans are particularly vulnerable is in the usually deep red St. Charles County. Democrats note, for example, that Rep. Vicki Schneider won her 17th district seat by fewer than 300 votes after outspending her challenger, Democrat Kenny Biermann, 7 to 1. Also in their favor, Democrats say, is the fact that Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill won 51 percent of the vote in that district in her race against GOP candidate Jim Talent.

Democrats also are eyeing the vacant 18th district seat in St. Charles County, formerly held by Tom Dempsey. In a political twist, Democrats have recruited a former GOP sheriff, Tim Swope, to carry the Democratic banner, while two Republicans -- Matthew Seeds and Anne Zerr -- are vying for their party's nomination. Ordinarily, one would think that the Republican candidate to replace Hulshof in the 9th congressional district, which includes St. Charles County, would be a shoo-in, but the Democrats are fielding strong candidates in the primary.

Another open seat where Democrats hope to do well is the 91st district in St. Louis County, where Jeanne Kirkton, long active in partisan and nonpartisan election issues, is running. She carried this district in her unsuccessful state Senate race against Michael Gibbons in 2004, and she is hopeful of winning again in a district that McCaskill won by 55 percent in 2006.

Democrats also are staking their hopes on Vicki Englund's race to take the 85th district as well as the 24th district candidacy of former state Rep. Chris Kelley, who once chaired the House's Budget Committee and later became an associate circuit judge in Boone County.

>Republican plans for the House are more modest, but the party would be in good shape even if it lost all five additional races it wants to win. Republicans are on the attack in the 8th district where Democrat Tom Shively ousted Republican Kathy Chin in a close race last time. This time, Shively will face a new candidate, Mike Austin. Republicans also expect their candidate, Casey Guernsey, to win the open seat in the 3rd district, which is about 56 percent Republican, and the party is also eyeing potential victories in the 2nd, 18th and 78th districts.

>"I think that if you raise money in your district and put out the yard signs, it's a good chance that we'll win those five seats," says Majority Floor Leader Steven Tilley.

THE IMPACT OF TERM LIMITS

Neither side is downplaying the impact of term limits. In the Senate, for example, four key lawmakers representing the St. Louis area won't be back in their old jobs in the fall: Harry Kennedy of the 1st, Maida Coleman of the 5th, John Loudon of the 7th and Michael Gibbons of the 15th.

(So far, at least Gibbons is the only one hoping to stay in politics. He's the GOP candidate for attorney general. Loudon is joining his family's business. Coleman has yet to decide what she wants to do, and Kennedy says he expects to accept a job offer in private industry.)

"I think term limits will affect both parties," Tilley says. "You have close to 30 open races. That's a pretty big number."

Tilley acknowledges GOP concerns, however, that Democrats have only about a dozen open seats compared to about 17 among Republicans.

"That will give the Democrats a slight advantage," he says.

If the Democrats make the district races a referendum on Blunt's policies, Tilley and other Republicans won't mind at all. Tilley rattles off a litany of accomplishments from the Blunt years: "We've had three years of budget surpluses, over three years during which 90,000 new jobs were created, a child sex offenders bill passed. We're now one of 10 states that don't have budget deficits. I think that voters will remember these things. That's why we have a 91-seat majority."

CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORMS

Democrats are almost certain to make an issue out of the new campaign finance law. As the clock was running out during the last legislative session, Republicans approved SB 1038, which repeals limits on campaign contributions. Tilley and the GOP leadership see the law as a way to bring more transparency to campaigning and to minimize the impact of third party committees. The aim, they say, is to let the public know the sources and amounts of campaign contributions. Democrats counter that the law's real intent was simply to lift the ceiling and allow Republicans to collect unlimited donations.

A big beneficiary of the new law certainly could be the Republican who competes against Nixon in the fall. Nixon himself has had been raising money for years. A quick way for the GOP contender to catch up is by collecting large individual donations, which the new law will allow. 

Democrats argue that the legislation does nothing to address cases like that of Rex Sinquefield who reportedly gave $168,000 to state lawmakers who support his views on school vouchers. Their concern is that the public doesn't have a clue about the source of some of his $168,000 in donations because the money was given through committees. Democrats point out that SB 1038 still allows this practice.

Tilley concedes that donors could still take the committee route under SB 1038, but he says there will be no need to run the donations through committees since the caps have been removed.

For both parties, there's a lot at stake this year. The primary races may offer the first tantalizing hints about whether Republicans will be able to extend by an election their stay in the governor's mansion and their complete control over state government for the first time in nearly a century.