Like Christmas, political season seems to keep getting longer

Monday, November 14, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- There was a time, not too long ago, when Christmas shopping occurred in December and merchants began marketing their winter holiday wares the day after Thanksgiving.

Now some retailers roll out their Christmas stock alongside the pumpkins and costumes -- long before Thanksgiving, even before Halloween.

Cynical shoppers know the reason for the early holiday season: It's all about money.

And so, too, is the continually lengthening political season.

The latest example: Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon, who indicated his intent last week to run for Missouri governor.

When is that election? Not next year, or even the next. It's in November 2008 -- a full three years away.

So why the rush?

The sooner contributors know you are a serious candidate, the sooner you can start raising serious money. And with the current rate of campaign inflation, running for governor takes lots of money -- likely more than $10 million in 2008.

"In this case, I think it seems obvious to me that he is wanting to serve notice to other potential Democratic candidates that he's going to be in the race, and he'll be raising money and hoping to not have much in the way of a serious primary battle," said political science professor Rick Althaus, of Southeast Missouri State University.

Yet even though he understands the political reasons for Nixon's decision, Althaus can't help but marvel at how it just seems so early for someone to already be running for governor.

"Amazing. It's simply amazing," said Althaus, who has taught political science in Cape Girardeau for 25 years.

"Americans, I think, probably would be happier if we would have shorter campaigns, rather than longer campaigns," he said. "But a longer campaign allows a candidate to raise more money, to get out more message, to improve name recognition. So it's hard as a candidate not to want to have a long time of campaigning."

Candidates are entering races early because it works. And because it has become a political necessity.

Democratic State Treasurer Bob Holden had amassed more than $400,000 in his campaign account as of June 1997 for a presumed 2000 gubernatorial race, although he had not yet said he was running. By contrast, Democratic Lt. Gov. Roger Wilson -- also eyeing a gubernatorial run -- had less than $50,000 on hand at that time.

Wilson opted out of the 2000 governor's race in March 1998, citing a desire to spend time with his family while decrying the time it took to mount a serious campaign for statewide office. His lieutenant governor's campaign lasted 22 months in 1992. His potential gubernatorial campaign would have run even longer than that.

After just nine months in office, Republican Gov. Matt Blunt already has banked more than $900,000 for his 2008 re-election campaign. That clearly puts some financial pressure on potential challengers.

Nixon, who had a little over $180,000 in his attorney general campaign fund, amended its purpose Thursday at the Missouri Ethics Commission to direct the cash go to his 2008 governor's race. Doing so should help Nixon attract money from other donors.

One advantage to entering a race early is "to help raise money over time," said Thad Beyle, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. "Everyone looks upon you as the candidate, and they start putting money into your campaign."

North Carolina's 2008 gubernatorial race also is off to an early start.

Although no one has committed to the campaign quite like Nixon, three of North Carolina's Democratic statewide officeholders already are building political staffs while Republicans are trying to rally behind one candidate.

Publicly, it's still to the candidates' advantage to talk about their current offices -- not their already under way campaigns. That way, they appear to be working hard in their jobs, even while they are working overtime to raise money for the next election.

Perhaps that is why Nixon -- not typically shy with the media -- was uncharacteristically silent the day his long-standing fundraising committee changed its purpose to a gubernatorial campaign. Nixon did not return repeated telephone calls.

Blunt, asked about Nixon's gubernatorial campaign filing after a speech in Lee's Summit, also preferred not to talk about it.

"I'm much more focused on the business at hand than looking at an election that is three years away," Blunt said.

Yet the money indicates that is not entirely the case.

Like the retailers who hold Christmas sales in mid-autumn, Blunt and Nixon already are seeking those big, early spenders.


EDITOR'S NOTE: Capitol Correspondent David A. Lieb covers Missouri government and politics for The Associated Press.

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