At least five candidates are now chasing the Republican nomination for governor in Missouri, a crowded primary field that complicates the ballot for voters and threatens to torpedo the party’s hope of retaking the governor’s mansion next year.
Four of the candidates are now expected to spend between $10 million and $15 million bashing their rivals on television, part of their efforts to grab the spot at the top of the GOP ticket.
“It’s going to be wild,” said former Missouri GOP chairman Ed Martin.
Such spending might damage the eventual nominee, who will face current Attorney General Chris Koster in the fall.
“It’s not optimal, I’ll say that,” said Missouri GOP chairman John Hancock. “Where it hurts you is if the primary devolves into a bitter family feud.”
The field isn’t official. Sign-ups won’t start until February, so it’s possible candidates will drop out — or be added — before voters go to the polls.
On Friday, businessman John Brunner said he was “prepared to officially move forward with my campaign” and scheduled a formal announcement for Oct. 5. Eric Greitens, a military veteran and author, officially began his effort Saturday.
A sixth announced candidate — Randy Asbury, a former state lawmaker — said Friday he was suspending his campaign.
The party has faced a large slate of primary candidates before. In 2004, for example, six Republican candidates also filed to run for the state’s top job.
But only one, Matt Blunt, was considered a serious contender. He racked up 88 percent of the primary vote, eventually defeating Claire McCaskill in the general election.
By contrast, four of this year’s GOP candidates — Brunner, Greitens, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and Catherine Hanaway — are considered first-tier contenders, the toughest field in perhaps a generation. Each can raise millions of dollars for the race, and they are thought to bring roughly equal resumes and political skills to the campaign.
“They have differences in style, in their backgrounds and story,” James Harris, a conservative strategist, said. “But I think any one of the four could win.”
Gregg Keller, a Republican political consultant in Missouri unaligned with any campaign, said the field appears uncommonly strong. “We are stacked with good resumes,” he said.
A lesser-known candidate, state Sen. Bob Dixon, is expected to attract important support.
While specific messages and tactics are still under discussion, the general outline of each candidate’s approach is emerging:
▪ Greitens and Brunner are expected to run as outsiders and non-politicians, hoping to capitalize on the apparent anger among many Republicans about longtime officeholders. “I believe we can elect a citizen-governor,” Brunner says in a video on his website.
Greitens supporter John Lamping, a former Missouri state senator, called Greitens a “pure outsider. … His experience is completely in a leadership role.”
▪ Kinder, on the other hand, will rely on experience and a network of party support, plus connections with well-known state conservatives. “We’re off to a good start,” he said recently.
▪ Hanaway will emphasize her time in the state legislature but also as an attorney. “Catherine’s record as speaker, as a prosecutor and as a working mom in the private sector make her the best candidate,” spokesman Nick Maddux said.
▪ Dixon’s message may center on co-operation and accomplishment in the legislature and may turn on his support in southwest Missouri.
Each candidate’s success or failure in communicating those messages will be critical, Republicans say. That’s because the primary may focus more on differences in style and approach than on issues, where they largely agree.
“All of our candidates are going to be strongly pro-life,” said Platte County GOP chairman Chris Seufert. “All of our candidates are going to be strong advocates for the Second Amendment.”
At the same time, the insider vs. outsider debate now playing out on the national level probably will be a part of Missouri’s GOP governor campaign. Hancock called it “a factor,” although he said other issues may become more important as Election Day draws near.
Virtually everyone expects the campaign to become aggressive quickly. “The race is going to be who defines whom,” Martin said. “It’s tough to sell on, ‘You’re a great guy.’ ”
Communicating that message will take money, of course, but each of the top-tier candidates expects to be well-funded.
Greitens had more than $1.1 million on hand at the end of June and may have raised $1 more million recently. Hanaway had $1.5 million. Brunner spent more than $8 million on his U.S. Senate race in 2012.
Kinder, a fixture of Missouri Republican politics for years, probably needs less money, Republicans said. He has boasted of being the only top-tier candidate without a campaign consultant.
Spending in the GOP primary may exceed $10 million next year, not counting any third-party expenditures. That means plenty of TV commercials and postcards in mailboxes next spring and summer.
And negative campaigns are possible, given the roughly equal field and the narrowness of the likely margins at the end.
“None of us will be surprised by some of the things they’ll be willing to say and do in order to get there,” Keller said. “You’re going to see a tremendous amount of commercials in a short time.”
Keller and other Republicans think the party can reunite after the primary, regardless of who wins the nomination. That movement will be critical, since the winner probably will prevail with far less than a majority of primary votes.
That means the nominee will need the help of hundreds of thousands of Republicans who supported someone else during the primary campaign.
There is another wild card in the GOP campaign: the suicide of former Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich, who killed himself earlier this year while running for governor on the GOP ticket. Attacks on Schweich are believed to have been a factor in his decision to end his life.
Whether Republican primary voters are inclined to assign blame to any candidates for the suicide, though, remains an unanswered question.
All of this could affect the general election campaign against Koster, who is now raising funds and crisscrossing the state as attorney general. He’ll be rested and ready when the GOP picks its nominee.
At the end of June he had $4 million in the bank.
At the same time, GOP leaders insist, Missouri is increasingly a Republican state and is likely to support a Republican presidential nominee. That complicates Koster’s path.
“If the Democrats don’t contest the state for president, which I think is a pretty good assumption,” Hancock said, “we’re going to be very well positioned to win the governor’s seat, because of the makeup of the electorate and the turnout.”
The Star’s Steve Kraske contributed to this report.