Nixon is ready to confront GOP majority in Missouri

Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon makes a point during a debate against Republican challenger Dave Spence, for Missouri governor Friday, Sept. 21, 2012, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon makes a point during a debate against Republican challenger Dave Spence, for Missouri governor Friday, Sept. 21, 2012, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson) ASSOCIATED PRESS

Gov. Jay Nixon’s first four years in office crafted a profile in caution.

He did his best to steer clear of direct confrontation with legislative Republicans, who for the last decade have dominated the General Assembly. If anything, lawmakers complained he shared his thoughts on legislation only after it landed on his desk.

He won re-election decisively, running as a conservative Democrat and managing throughout the campaign to avoid firmly weighing in on one of the biggest pressing issues for state government: whether to expand the public insurance program for the poor.

But now he’s given his full-throated support for Medicaid expansion, a key element of the Republican-despised Obamacare.

In doing so, he’s challenged head-on the veto-proof Republican majorities of the state House and Senate convening today in the Capitol.

Nixon, it seems, is determined to leave his mark.

“You think about it, yeah,” the Democrat said in a recent interview with The Star when asked about his legacy. “After the election, I read a history of each of Missouri’s governors just to get a sense of that. I mean, you want to leave the place better than you found it.”

Re-election means four more years of “opportunity to get things done,” Nixon said, but term limits mean that’s the end of it. After nearly three decades in state government, his time is running out.

That reality could change a governor best known for playing his cards close to his chest, said Chuck Hatfield, a Jefferson City lawyer who served as Nixon’s chief of staff in the attorney general’s office for 10 years.

“He doesn’t have to run for re-election, so I think he can be bolder,” Hatfield said. “He’s got to be wondering whether he’s accomplished everything he wants to. I think he looks at expanding Medicaid as part of his legacy.”

John Hancock, a longtime Republican strategist and former lawmaker, said Nixon’s political aspirations could also play a part in shaping his second term.

“If he has his eyeballs on a run for U.S. Senate in four years, or even a run for the presidency, he will have to prove he’s accomplished something big,” Hancock said. “He certainly didn’t try anything this bold in his first term.”

Nixon has waved off any questions about future political aspirations, saying he’s focused on his current job. But he’s already made two previous unsuccessful runs for the U.S. Senate, and first-term Republican Sen. Roy Blunt will be up for re-election in 2016.

“I’ve never met a politician who didn’t want a promotion,” Hatfield said, later adding: “I’d be surprised if Governor Nixon has ruled anything out.”

Keeping people in the dark about what his future may hold will also keep him from being seen as a lame-duck governor by lawmakers, further strengthening his hand, Hatfield said.

Republican vision

Republicans enter the 2013 session with high hopes.

House Speaker Tim Jones, a Eureka Republican, and Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, a St. Charles Republican, are confident that the GOP-on-GOP infighting that defined the last two legislative sessions — and derailed a special session convened in 2011 — is a thing of the past.

High on the agenda, Jones said, is a response to massive tax cuts enacted in Kansas last year. Missouri must push forward with its own set of tax cuts, he said, although not nearly as deep.

Jones will also press for a slate of ideas that have long been on the agenda of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, from prohibiting labor unions from deducting dues from members’ paychecks to reworking the state’s workers’ compensation system.

Lawmakers will also take another swing at restricting teacher tenure and will once again try to reach agreement on a deal to overhaul Missouri’s tax credit system.

Jones believes the historic number of Republicans in the General Assembly will force Nixon to the negotiating table on issues instead of relying on the veto pen.

“I’m looking for a little more partnership,” he said, “a little more negotiation, a little more buy-in from the governor on issues that are important to Missourians.”

While Nixon has steadfastly maintained that he has always kept communications open between his office and the legislature, any apprehension about wading into policy discussion may be strategic, said Roy Temple, a veteran Democratic strategist who served as chief of staff to Missouri’s last two-term governor, the late Mel Carnahan.

“He has to know when jumping into a debate is going to be helpful or only serve to harden the opposition,” he said. “There are those who don’t care about an issue until they find out the governor cares, and then they try to leverage it or oppose it to score political points.”

Power of the governor

One thing that’s not on the agenda for Republicans is expansion of Medicaid. Dempsey said earlier this year that it’s “very unlikely” that GOP lawmakers would approve a plan that encourages “an ever-expansive federal government.” That sentiment has been echoed by most Republican lawmakers.

Republicans have also stood in opposition to other items Nixon has included in his 2013 agenda, most notably campaign finance reform that includes contribution limits. And a handful of bills that died thanks to Nixon’s veto pen are back on the GOP wish list, including mandating a photo ID to vote and making it harder to sue an employer for discrimination.

With a veto-proof majority, it would seem as though Republicans hold the upper hand. But Temple warned against counting out the governor.

“(Carnahan) used to say, ‘If state government is a game of marbles, the governor starts with most of them,’ ” he said. “The governor remains the most powerful guy in town.”

Republicans have had lots of trouble in the past keeping their members unified, Temple said, and Nixon has proven highly capable of outmaneuvering legislative opposition.

“He knows how the legislature works,” he said. “He knows the pressures and motivations. He understands every nook and cranny of state government. He knows how to get stuff done.”

Nixon’s position is not unprecedented. In 1988, Republican Gov. John Ashcroft easily won a second term in office with more than 60 percent of the vote. Democrats continued to hold huge majorities in both legislative chambers.

“We chose to emphasize things that were core responsibilities of government,” Ashcroft said in a recent interview with The Star. “That’s where you will typically find the most consensus, and it’s much easier to work from there.”

Nixon concedes it won’t be easy to convince lawmakers to go along with the federal Affordable Care Act’s call for Medicaid expansion. But he believes Republicans will eventually come around.

“It was a binary system before the election: You were either for it or against it,” Nixon said. “Now we have to educate lawmakers about how this is the smart and right thing to do.”

When he first ran for governor in 2008, Nixon vowed to reverse cuts to Medicaid put in place by Republican lawmakers and then-Gov. Matt Blunt. Although he says “tens of thousands of kids” have been added to Medicaid during his first term by making it more efficient to sign up, the Medicaid cuts were never overturned.

The federal health care law has given him another chance.

“He campaigned hard on that, but legislative and budget realities meant he had to put it on the back burner,” Hatfield said. “I think he wants to finally make good on that goal.”

For a politician who has never been the most popular member of his own party, Hancock said, it may not matter politically if the Medicaid push is successful.

“Just the fact that he’s come out strongly in favor will ingratiate him with Democrats,” the Republican said, “whether it passes or not.”

Temple, not surprisingly, thinks Nixon’s motives are more pure.

“One of the questions you ask yourself at this stage is whether what you’re about to do is going to make you feel proud when it’s all over,” Temple said. “Would I be proud if I walked away from this fight? If the answer is ‘no,’ then this is one I should take on.”