Bond departure creates second GOP scramble

Saturday, January 10, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missouri has seen this before. A prominent Republican officeholder, presumed to be seeking re-election, announced in January that he won't run again.

In January 2008, that was Gov. Matt Blunt.

In January 2009, it's U.S. Sen. Kit Bond.

Like a year ago, Bond's announcement jolted Missouri's political world.

But that similarity aside, there are some significant differences.

Most notable: Bond has given his potential successors a greater chance to contemplate and organize a campaign. That could be especially important for Republicans, whose latecomer candidates were at a disadvantage in the 2008 gubernatorial race to a Democrat who already had been campaigning for months.

Blunt's announcement came barely a month before the candidacy filing period began and just 196 days before the primary election.

Bond gave his retirement notice more than a year before the start of candidacy filing and 572 days before the Aug. 3, 2010, primary.

In the political world, that amounts to precious time to line up the support of prominent party activists, donors and interest groups; to assemble the best campaign team possible; and to develop a campaign strategy and platform.

"The Matt Blunt decision was literally a jawbreaker and forced people in a very quick timeline -- who were unprepared to run for governor -- to put the pieces in place to mount a campaign," said Republican political consultant Jeff Roe.

Roe managed the 2008 gubernatorial campaign of Republican Sarah Steelman, who by coincidence had announced her treasurer re-election bid just hours before Blunt's own announcement.

Three days later, Steelman reversed course and entered the governor's race. U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof declared his gubernatorial candidacy seven days after Blunt's announcement. Numerous other Republicans floated their names for consideration before opting out.

Some of those thought-about-it candidates have resurfaced in 2009.

U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, for example, said Friday she will not run for the Senate. Sources close to Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly about his intentions, said Friday that Kinder has his eyes on a 2012 gubernatorial bid and is unlikely to enter the Senate race.

Others Republicans are still weighing a Senate bid, including likely candidate U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, of Springfield; Steelman, of Rolla; former U.S. senator Jim Talent, of Chesterfield; U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, of Tarkio; and Hulshof.

Whereas Republican gubernatorial candidates had to declare their intentions within days of Blunt's announcement, potential senatorial candidates could wait weeks or months to decide whether to run for Bond's seat.

"Republicans have a greater luxury of time, this time, to assemble organizations and lay the groundwork for stronger campaigns," said political scientist Peverill Squire, of the University of Missouri-Columbia.

That's particularly useful because Senate campaigns in swing states such as Missouri tend to be even more high-profile than gubernatorial campaigns. There are national interests at stake, attracting nationwide donors, national campaign strategists and the national media spotlight.

In 2008, Hulshof defeated Steelman in a contentious Republican gubernatorial primary only to get trounced by Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon in the November general election. Hulshof had several factors working against him, including the label of congressman in a year in which Washington was unpopular and the economy was tanking.

But the compressed and contentious primary campaign also divided Republicans and drained Hulshof's finances for the general election.

Democratic consultant Mike Kelley attributes Nixon's large victory margin partly to the timing of Blunt's exit.

"He put his party in the worst possible position they could have been in -- he annihilated his party with that decision," Kelley said.

While Bond's departure is a boost for Democrats, who have had difficulty beating him, "I'm not sure that he puts his party at too much of a disadvantage, because he has given them two years notice," Kelley added.

Bond endorsed no one as his successor when he announced his retirement, though he did not rule out that possibility at some point in the future.

Like 2008, when Democrats already had united behind Nixon by the time of Blunt's announcement, it appears Democrats are more quickly rallying behind a candidate for the 2010 Senate race.

In an unusual move this far before a primary, the Missouri Democratic Party's executive director on Thursday essentially endorsed Secretary of State Robin Carnahan for the Senate race. Incoming Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster also backed Carnahan, although she has not yet announced her candidacy.

Republicans should take a lesson from their 2008 campaign to succeed Blunt, Squire said. Steelman, who had sharply criticized Hulshof for wasteful earmark spending by Congress, remained silent for weeks after her loss to Hulshof instead of following political tradition and quickly endorsing the party nominee.

"The risk to Republicans is if this is a competitive primary, it could bruise some feelings and it could highlight some division in the state party, which is not something they probably want as they go into a difficult race," he said.

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