Government & Politics

GOP governor candidates hope to avoid repeating 1992 Missouri debacle

By 2002, then Rep. Roy Blunt was the only Republican from the bitter 1992 Missouri governor primary to still be in politics.
By 2002, then Rep. Roy Blunt was the only Republican from the bitter 1992 Missouri governor primary to still be in politics. File photo by The Associated Press

The election was so bitter, its top two finishers still won’t talk about it, 23 years later.

The winner ended up in prison and abandoned politics forever. The third-place finisher, a former congressman, never held office again. Only the runner-up, a man some blamed for the angry tone of the campaign, remains an elected official today.

Now, some Missouri Republicans worry their 2016 governor’s primary could be a repeat of that 1992 disaster.

Five candidates are now battling for the GOP nomination for Missouri governor. Each campaigns in the shadow of the party’s furious 1992 primary, when three well-known Republicans — then-Attorney General Bill Webster, then-Secretary of State Roy Blunt and then-state Treasurer Wendell Bailey — fought over Missouri’s top job.

Webster eventually won the primary, but many Republicans still believe the campaign’s extraordinary negativity played a major role in his general election loss to Democrat Mel Carnahan that fall. It also damaged the Republican brand: Since that election, the Missouri GOP, ascendant in so many other ways, has held the governor’s mansion just four out of 23 years.

“We spent the 1990s, and maybe a little beyond, paying for that” race, said Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican now running for governor.

Another messy primary, and another loss, could extend the streak, perhaps for another eight years.

Kinder and the other current candidates vigorously resist point-by-point comparisons with the 1992 primary. The dynamics are different, their strategists insist.

All three major candidates in 1992 were GOP insiders, for example, while two of the current candidates have never held office. No one in the current field faces the legal scrutiny that helped doom Webster a generation ago.

Yet the 2016 race resembles the 1992 primary in important ways. The current field is well-financed and relatively evenly spaced, just like 1992. The seat is open, as it was then, raising the importance of the race — the winner could end up running the state until 2024.

And because the candidates largely agree on issues important to primary voters, there’s a good possibility the campaign will turn on character and reputation, prime real estate for negative ads. Millions of dollars in TV commercials may be on their way to your living room. Millions of fliers will soon hit mailboxes.

Despite the candidates’ promises of clean campaigns, the race seems to be off to a rocky start. Last February, one candidate took his own life, obsessed with the possibility of another negative and personal primary.

“It could get nasty,” said Dan Ponder, a political science professor at Drury University in Springfield. “There is a real possibility of a bloody fight.”

A scandal, a merry-go-round

Missouri Republicans are confident they can win back the governor’s mansion next year. They were equally confident in 1992.

The state, they believed then, was changing from a Democratic bastion to a Republican stronghold. And the state’s Democrats faced their own potentially messy primary, between then-Lt. Gov. Carnahan and then-St. Louis Mayor Vince Schoemehl. The two factors combined indicated an edge for the GOP standard-bearer.

There was a breakfast at the governor’s mansion early in the campaign. Bailey, the affable former congressman, was there. So was Blunt, a canny politician from southwest Missouri. Webster, a talented lawyer known across the nation, was at the table.

Republican Gov. John Ashcroft spoke first. “He said, ‘One of you is going to be the next governor of this state,’ ” Bailey remembered. “That was a pretty popular opinion.”

Each candidate believed he had a legitimate claim to the party’s support in the August primary.

Webster had argued an important anti-abortion case before the U.S. Supreme Court and won. Blunt was popular in Greene County and its neighbors, among the most conservative counties in Missouri. Bailey’s sunny personality endeared him to Republicans across the state.

Webster was the favorite. “Your support among Republicans is stronger, deeper and more committed compared to the support for your opponents,” a campaign pollster told him in a memo that February.

Yet dark clouds were gathering. A federal grand jury was looking into business deals involving Webster’s friends, and reporters were poking around an obscure state program called the Second Injury Fund.

Few Missourians knew about the fund, and fewer still could explain how it worked. But it turned out that some of the lawyers who got lucrative contracts to represent the fund had campaign connections to Webster, who as attorney general helped oversee the fund. Some of the lawyers sued and defended the fund, taking fees in both directions.

Blunt’s campaign pounced, accusing his opponent of unethical behavior. “Roy Blunt beat up on Bill Webster,” recalled Scott Charton, a political consultant and former reporter who covered the 1992 race.

Blunt — now a U.S. Senator — declined, through his office, to comment on the 1992 campaign. Webster, now a private citizen, did not respond to a request for an interview.

Accusations and leaks shot across the state. In that pre-Internet age, the campaigns spent almost all of their money on attack ads, which dominated broadcasts from Kansas City to St. Louis.

The bitter campaign reached its climax that summer when the Blunt campaign aired a television ad that remains a legend in Missouri politics. Designed by Roger Ailes — now the head of Fox News — it featured plump lawyers on a merry-go-round, their pockets stuffed with cash, plucking bills from a state-fund barrel and dropping them in a Webster campaign barrel on the other side.

Most primary voters didn’t understand the Second Injury Fund, but they understood merry-go-rounds, and the corruption implied in the commercial. “Everybody remembers the merry-go-round ad,” Bailey says today. “It was mean. It was a mean ad. I turned my head and cringed.”

Webster tried to respond in kind, airing an ad accusing Blunt of printing a state publication outside of Missouri. It was enough for Webster to win the primary that August, beating Blunt and Bailey, but the damage had been done.

The commercial “battered Webster,” Charton said. “He bled all the way to the general election.”

‘Ready-made campaign ads’

Webster’s fall race against Carnahan wasn’t close. Fireworks in the 1992 Democratic primary were muted, it turned out, compared with the GOP explosion.

“We knew Webster was likely to win” the Republican primary, recalled Marc Farinella, a top Carnahan adviser that year. “But we also suspected he had this enormous problem — the Second Injury Fund scandal.”

The polls confirmed what Farinella, and other political pros, already sensed: A divisive, bitter primary damages candidates long after the campaign is over. Angry primaries drive away independent voters and undecideds in the general election, while many party regulars — disappointed their candidate lost — stay home.

“We knew the Republican nominee … would have to mend a lot of fences and spend some time investing in their own base, to pull things together,” Farinella said.

Webster couldn’t do that in 1992, a failure that haunts the current GOP candidates.

They know it’s likely the eventual winner of the 2016 race will prevail with just 30 or 35 percent of the vote — an outcome that could leave two-thirds of the state’s Republicans upset. And repairing that damage will be more difficult if the primary has been particularly negative.

Additionally, unlike 1992, Democrat Chris Koster — now running for governor — has no primary opponent. He can save money and energy, then use the GOP losers’ own words against his general election opponent.

“There is a benefit,” conceded Missouri GOP chairman John Hancock, “if your team doesn’t have a primary, and the other team does.”

In 1992, Blunt tried to mend fences with Webster after the primary, but it rang hollow. “The press got all over him for saying he supported Webster now,” Bailey remembered. “They said, ‘How can you do that after what you said about him?’ 

Ponder, who studies Missouri politics, says Democrats could use that kind of ambivalence against the GOP nominee. “It can carry more weight with independents or weak partisan leaners to say, ‘Don’t vote for this candidate, look what other Republicans are saying,’ ” he said. “You hand the Democrats ready-made campaign ads.”

The 2016 candidates, and their campaigns, promise to avoid that problem.

“I remember (1992) well,” Kinder said. “I see no reason the coming year should unfold in that fashion.”

Former state Sen. John Lamping is a key adviser to Eric Greitens, another announced candidate. “Eric’s not going to run negative ads,” he said. “That’s not going to happen.”

A spokesman for Catherine Hanaway said she is committed to running a “positive campaign,” while John Brunner’s spokesman said the candidate “will not participate in these types of personal negative attacks.”

State Sen. Bob Dixon did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.

Hancock says he’s talking with all the campaigns, trying to keep the rhetorical flourishes to a minimum. A multicandidate race, he says, is likely to be less aggressive than a faceoff like the one between Webster and Blunt.

Yet maintaining completely clean campaigns may prove difficult.

Dixon has already accused Kinder of “wild accusations and threats” following the legislature’s failed attempt to override the right-to-work veto. Kinder’s well-publicized presence in a dance club may show up in a campaign commercial.

Republicans are whispering about Greitens’ past as a Democrat. Brunner’s 2012 Senate campaign ran ads that other Republicans denounced as absurd. The facts of Hanaway’s involvement, or lack of involvement, in the radio ad that upset the late Tom Schweich will likely be explored.

“Bitterness runs through the roots of the Missouri Republican Party right now and is being played out in the race for the governor’s seat,” said Robynn Kuhlmann, a political science professor at the University of Central Missouri.

Hancock resists that conclusion.

“Everybody understands that this is an election for the future of the state,” he said. “If we are to win, it’s going to be a necessary component that this primary election not devolve into a bitter personal attack operation.”

Lasting impact

Of the three major candidates in 1992, only one emerged relatively unscathed.

Blunt left elective office for a short time, then revived his career by running for the U.S. House. In 2010, he made the move to the Senate — after an intense backstage campaign to keep other Republicans out of the primary that year. His only primary opponent, a tea party Republican, was never a factor.

Sen. Blunt is running for re-election in 2016. His likely opponent will be Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, a Democrat.

Bailey ran for office again, even prevailing in the state’s lieutenant governor primary in 2000. But he never returned to elective office.

After the 1992 election was over, Webster pleaded guilty to using public resources for his campaign and was sentenced to federal prison.

He’s now a private citizen, living in the Kansas City area. He has never again been a candidate for office.

Dave Helling: 816-234-4656, @dhellingkc

Steve Kraske: 816-234-4312, @stevekraske