Missourians, meet your new governor: Jay Nixon, a Democrat.
Though he has long worn the Democratic label, Nixon could have easily passed himself off as a moderate Republican during his first four years as governor. He cut taxes, spending and thousands of government jobs. And Nixon shied far away from President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.
Since he won re-election a year ago, Nixon has shifted noticeably leftward. He sought to expand Missouri’s Medicaid eligibility under Obama’s health care law. He vetoed a big income tax cut and numerous other bills passed by the Republican-led Legislature. And this past week, Nixon came out in support of gay marriage.
“I think he’s rediscovering his Democratic roots in time for whatever it is he chooses to do in 2016,” when voters will next elect a president, said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Because of term limits, Nixon cannot run again for governor. He already has served 16 years as state attorney general and six as a state senator. And he says he has no desire to run for the U.S. Senate.
Nixon’s recent actions seem to confirm that he’s not thinking about another Missouri campaign, or at least not trying to position himself for one.
“I think his shift – in particular on gay marriage, which really flies in the face of popular opinion in Missouri – is a real clear signal … that he’s not considering any sort of statewide run,” said George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University.
Connor added: “It seems to me that he’s positioning himself for a broader audience – he is moving significantly to the left.”
Over the past decade, Missouri voters have rejected gay marriage and twice rebuffed key parts of Obama’s health care law. Yet support for a federal health care overhaul and gay marriage almost appear as a prerequisite for Democrats wanting to step onto the national political stage in the future.
Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – the most well-known of the potential 2016 Democratic president candidates – both have announced their support for gay marriage. So has Obama.
Nixon convened a Capitol news conference last week to announce that he was directing the Missouri Department of Revenue to accept joint income tax returns filed by same-sex couples who get legally married in other states.
He noted that Missouri still has a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage. But Nixon said he no longer supports that and hopes voters get a chance to repeal it. The pronouncement was significant, because Nixon shied away from any discussion of gay marriage during his re-election campaign.
“Many Missourians, including myself, are thinking about these issues of equality in new ways and reflecting on what constitutes discrimination,” Nixon said. “For me, that process has led to the belief that we shouldn’t treat folks differently just because of who they are.”
Nixon added: “I think if folks want to get married, they should be able to get married.”
The new Nixon is a politician who could be accepted by national Democrats yet could still boast of his conservative fiscal management of the state’s budget, Squire said.
“He' somebody who wouldn’t offend liberals but could play up his moderate credentials,” Squire said.
Nixon’s evolving positions have been accompanied by an expanded travel itinerary. In September, Nixon went to New York to participate in a panel discussion about natural disasters that was hosted by the Clinton Global Initiative. In October, he went to Chicago for what was billed as a bipartisan governor’s forum on leadership in crisis.
Connor and Squire both discount a potential Nixon presidential campaign. But they say he may want to be considered for vice president, a top Cabinet spot such as attorney general or some other position in a future Democratic administration.
Nixon has not publicly discussed what he wants to do after his term as governor ends.
It’s possible that Nixon could simply retire from government and politics. He will be a month shy of age 61 when his term ends in January 2017. That’s plenty young enough for a continued career in politics. And that could help explain Nixon’s new tone.
“I think he wants to elevate his position within the party nationally,” Squire said.