Early Missouri governor’s race new political normal

02/16/2014 5:43 PM

02/16/2014 5:43 PM

It’s barely 2014. Candidates haven’t even officially begun filing for this year’s elections. Yet Missouri’s 2016 gubernatorial campaign is in full swing.

Democrats already have a successor-in-waiting to term-limited Gov. Jay Nixon.

Republicans already have one officially declared candidate, a second who appears all but certain to run and a third who is publicly contemplating the gubernatorial race.

Does it seem a bit early? Perhaps.

Premature? Perhaps not.

Quick starts to campaign seasons are becoming increasingly common both nationally and especially in Missouri because of the mounting pressure to raise money, line up key supporters and lock down the best professional campaign consultants.

“Letting time pass makes it more difficult to win,” Republican Catherine Hanaway said in announcing her gubernatorial candidacy this past week. “I’m trying to build the best grass-roots organization ever in Missouri.”

Hanaway, a former Missouri House speaker and U.S. attorney, hasn’t appeared on a Missouri ballot for 10 years, when she lost a bid for secretary of state. So she has work to do to re-establish a political network.

The challenge is particularly pressing because Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster already has amassed nearly $1.6 million while building a gubernatorial campaign.

Koster first confirmed on April 9, 2013, that he was preparing to run for governor in 2016. That came only three months into Nixon’s second term as governor, and 1,306 days before the general election. If records were kept on such things, Koster’s early confirmation of his gubernatorial plans may have broken the mark set by Nixon for the 2008 elections.

Nixon, who then was attorney general, changed his campaign committee to note he was running for governor on Nov. 10, 2005 – 10 months into the tenure of Republican Gov. Matt Blunt and 1,091 days before the next gubernatorial election. As it turned out, Blunt decided not to run again – a decision he didn’t announce until January 2008.

Nixon’s early start to his gubernatorial campaign allowed him to be positioned as the front-runner as Republicans scrambled to find an election-year replacement for Blunt. A contentious GOP primary ensued, and Nixon cruised to election.

When candidates enter a race early, “it’s usually either a heavyweight who just wants to clear the field quickly or somebody who is facing an uphill battle who really needs extended time to build an organization and put together a campaign,” said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Squire said Koster falls into that first category. The strategy appears to have worked, as Democrats are coalescing around Koster as their presumed nominee.

Squire said Hanaway falls into the second category.

“She’s been out of it for a decade, and she has a lot of reintroducing herself to do in terms of running a statewide race,” Squire said. “I think she’s getting in early because she’s starting from behind.”

Hanaway appears likely to face a primary challenge.

Republican State Auditor Tom Schweich hasn’t officially announced his candidacy, but that’s mainly because it would be politically awkward to do so. Schweich first must win re-election this year – he so far has no opponents – and be sworn into a second term next January before it would be politically couth to acknowledge he wants to become governor.

But Schweich has provided some good indications that he’s preparing a gubernatorial campaign. A day after Hanaway’s announcement, Schweich released a lengthy list of political heavyweights involved in his re-election – a team that could remain intact if he transitioned to a gubernatorial run.

Schweich declined to comment directly about Hanaway’s candidacy, but said: “I think we have to remain 100 percent focused on 2014 right now, and any distraction from that is not a good idea.”

Three days later, Republican businessman John Brunner – who lost a GOP primary for U.S. Senate in 2012 – said he also was contemplating a gubernatorial bid but would make no decisions until after the 2014 elections. He plans to attend an annual Republican conference this coming weekend in Springfield where Schweich and Hanaway also will have a presence.

Republican consultant John Hancock, who worked for Brunner’s Senate bid, said he expects Republican leaders to try to avert a contentious gubernatorial primary. In 2004, 2008 and 2012, the party with a tense primary for Missouri governor or U.S. Senate ultimately ended up losing the general election to a rival from the opposing party who was untarnished by a primary.

Missouri’s August primary gives little time for candidates to rebuild a campaign account before the November election.

“The other problem is the winning candidate in a primary takes on water for months and months,” Hancock said. “A lot of times, the water you take on ends up drowning you in November.”

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