Missouri GOP playing catch-up after Kinder drops out of governor’s race

Peter Kinder
Peter Kinder

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s prospects for re-election were considered good even before the state’s lieutenant governor, Peter Kinder, dropped out of the 2012 governor’s race Friday.

Now, they may be even better.

“This is a win for Nixon,” said Missouri State University political scientist George Connor. “It looks like he’s going to breeze through.”

One Republican who announced his candidacy for governor this week is St. Louis businessman Dave Spence, who has little statewide name recognition. Also running: Bill Randles of Kansas City.

It also leaves them with a potential primary fight for lieutenant governor. Kinder, 57, said he would seek a third term next year. But another Republican, state Sen. Brad Lager of northwest Missouri, announced this week that he’s running for the office.

“Ultimately I’m going to do whatever I think is best for the citizens of this state,” Lager said Friday.

The developments once again highlight the Missouri GOP’s split personality. On the one hand, the party dominates both houses of the General Assembly. But Republicans are struggling to translate that dominance to statewide offices, where Democrats control four of six, including governor.

“They divide on the most important issues, so they can’t unite behind a candidate or a slate of candidates to run statewide,” Connor said.

On Friday, Kinder declined to say why he was dropping out of the governor’s race, but focused on his plans for re-election.

“Serving as lieutenant governor is a great honor,” he said in a statement to reporters. “I have the experience, track record and desire to continue working in that capacity every day to achieve needed reforms.”

The announcement came just two days before Kinder was to announce his plans to challenge Nixon in what was supposed to be a campaign kickoff in Kinder’s hometown of Cape Girardeau. That kickoff was to follow what had been a weeks-long listening tour around Missouri to gauge interest in his candidacy.

Throughout the last two years, Kinder had been touted as the likely GOP gubernatorial candidate, and anticipated kickoff dates were floated and then postponed after a series of news stories bogged down Kinder’s campaign.

One story raised questions about his dealings with a former stripper and Penthouse Pet, while another raised questions about how much he had billed taxpayers for hotel rooms around the state.

Those stories apparently took a heavy toll on his support.

Woody Cozad, a former Missouri GOP chairman, said Kinder’s decision shocked no one.

“Nobody’s surprised, given all the circumstances,” he said. “But it’s going to be hard, and I don’t mean to denigrate Mr. Spence, but he doesn’t have the name ID to make Nixon quake in his boots.”

But Kinder called Spence the Republicans’ “best chance” of defeating Nixon.

“Dave is a self-made man who understands how to create jobs and improve the state’s economy,” Kinder said. “He is smart, serious and has a vision he’s shared with me to renew Missouri’s greatness. I am proud to call him a friend and will do everything in my power to see that he’s elected governor next year.”

Spence already is facing questions about his work as a board member for Reliance Bank, which received more than $40 million from the federal Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. Early this year, Reliance failed to make its first annual payment to TARP of $2.2 million.

“It’s hard to imagine Republicans uniting around a guy like David Spence, who spent his first three days as a candidate trying to explain his actions overseeing a bank that took a $40 million government bailout and failed to pay the taxpayers back,” said Caitlin Legacki, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Democratic Party.

Cozad said the party will struggle to find other candidates.

“A lot of people are going to make what I regard as a mistake, that Gov. Nixon is a shoo-in for re-election,” he said. “I don’t believe that. You’re going to have a hard time finding a (GOP) candidate, and it’s going to be harder than it should be because people who consider themselves … good candidates think he’s unbeatable. And I think they’re wrong.”

Missouri Democrats, meantime, said Kinder’s withdrawal signaled just how well-positioned Nixon is.

“Jay Nixon’s prospects for re-election have never been stronger,” Legacki said.