Elections

One election season ends, and another one starts

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Tom Schweich has a decision to make, and not much time left to make it.

Schweich, a Republican and Missouri’s auditor, is thinking about running for governor next year. A generation ago, he might have spent the spring and summer making up his mind before declaring his intentions around Labor Day.

Not now. His opponents are already frantically raising money, putting out press releases, tweeting and Facebooking. He has to tell the world whether he’s in or out — and soon.

“I’m in the course of the decision-making process,” he said last week — after he was sworn in to the office he won in November.

Politicians and the people who advise them say never-ending statewide elections are here to stay, an inevitable result of the massive and growing influence of money in politics and a high-speed media environment.

“It’s an arms race,” political consultant Martin Hamburger said in an email.

At the same time, the permanent campaign is changing elective government. It turns every statewide policy debate into a campaign squabble years before voters actually start paying attention, while limiting access for unknown candidates and reducing constituent choices.

“It’s really driving out voters more and more,” said Jim Jonas, a veteran consultant who ran Greg Orman’s 2014 failed Senate campaign in Kansas. “It makes the party insiders and funders even more important to the process.”

The 2016 Missouri statewide ballot will be firmly set in the next 45 days, officials in both parties believe. Commitments from outside groups are getting locked in, staffers are being hired, messages tested.

Most candidates have already made the official leap. Republican Catherine Hanaway announced her campaign for Missouri governor 21/2 years before Election Day, using the early start to raise more than $1.4 million last year.

Retired St. Louis businessman Rex Sinquefield is responsible for about $1 million of that. In Missouri, where donations are uncapped, Sinquefield’s backing is considered vital.

Tom Schweich lost the 2014 Sinquefield primary.

“Money has to be locked up earlier than before, not only to fund your campaign but to keep it off of the table for potential rivals,” said Ben Hartman, an adviser to Senate candidate Milton Wolf in Kansas last year. “Donors like to see a viable campaign before they commit resources, so you have to start assembling a team and a plan to get their support.”

Jonas agreed.

“The winnowing that used to happen through ballots is happening through Federal Election Commission (spending) reports,” he said. “If you can’t prove you’re viable early by raising money and hiring staff … forget about it.”

It isn’t clear, though, if early decisions always help the candidate or the electorate.

Early campaigns may lock candidates into statements and positions they later regret. And when every political choice is seen through a campaign lens, compromise can be harder to achieve.

“It does have an effect on some of the positions that people who are in the legislature are taking,” said Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, the likely Democratic nominee for governor.

Caitlin Legacki, a Democratic strategist and former adviser to U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, said the permanent campaign “makes it harder to govern.”

McCaskill’s decision last week to forgo the 2016 governor’s race in Missouri is the latest example of the early-start phenomenon. Friends say her January announcement was driven not by her election prospects but by the demands of campaign machinery like fundraising and staffing.

“She needed to decide now,” said longtime McCaskill adviser and campaign strategist Richard Martin.

“There was no point in her waiting. It’s not fair to the Democratic Party and Chris Koster,” he said. “Whether we like it or not, the next election cycle starts the day after the most recent one.”

While the need for campaign money is considered the biggest driver of early decision-making, the media environment plays a role, too. The 24/7 news cycle and a multitude of outlets are pressuring candidates to declare their intentions more quickly than ever.

Any hesitation and the commentariat is on to the next race and the next candidate.

Hartman, formerly of the Wolf campaign, said reporters asked about the candidate’s 2016 plans less than an hour after he lost the 2014 GOP primary to Sen. Pat Roberts.

“Right after Milton delivered his concession speech on primary election night, one of the very first questions he was asked was if he would be running against (U.S. Rep. Kevin) Yoder or (U.S. Sen. Jerry) Moran in 2016,” he recalled.

Martin said politicians are fully aware of reporters clamoring for a story — and a candidate’s decision.

“There’s no break,” he said. “If you’re a political reporter, you can only write about the past election for so long.”

The media/money influence on early decision-making is most obvious in the presidential race.

The late 2014 announcement from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush that he was considering a presidential campaign has prompted a profile-raising stampede of other GOP hopefuls, from U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Mitt Romney.

“The sparring in the media right now between Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney is all jockeying for support from elite donors,” Hartman said. “Bush is trying to lock them all up so their money is off the table.”

Some of this activity has taken place in big campaigns for decades. Barack Obama planned his first presidential campaign in 2006, for example, although he formally announced in February 2007, less than 12 months before the 2008 Iowa caucus.

And some candidates think a two-year campaign helps them after the election.

“It is not inappropriate for a candidate to try to educate themselves about every issue in every part of the state geographically for more than 24 months,” Koster said, “to take over what is essentially a $27 billion public corporation.”

But the accelerated pace of campaign decisions in statewide races worries some. It restricts voter choices and campaign flexibility while making money more important than ever.

“The money chase is going to get worse,” Jonas said.

Says Hamburger: “Politics is not getting quieter or simpler anytime soon.”

Schweich may understand that truth. He declined an interview request last week — too busy, an associate said.

But he has already promised we’ll know by Valentine’s Day if he’s running for governor.

The Star’s Steve Kraske contributed to this report.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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