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State GOP regroups, names new exec director, new approach - but same message

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 22, 2009 - With their party's annual Lincoln Days concluded, Missouri Republicans left Kansas City on Sunday knowing that a new team is in place and that a new agenda is on tap.

Lloyd Smith, the longtime chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, was officially hired this weekend by Missouri's top Republicans to be the party's new executive director -- the top paid position.

As of April 1, Smith will replace Jared Craighead, a longtime friend of the Blunt family, notably now ex-Gov. Matt Blunt.

Smith, 57, is the choice of Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who also hails from Cape Girardeau. Kinder now wields a lot of public and behind-the-scenes party influence as a result of his victory last fall. He was the only statewide Republican to win in November. And the state's senior Republican, U.S. Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., is retiring after the 2010 election.

Bond made plenty of news during Lincoln Days, by calling for ex-Sen. Jim Talent to consider returning to politics, and by criticizing the state's legislative term limits, which Missouri voters overwhelmingly approved in 1992. Republicans were the driving force in that effort.

Bond also reinterated his opposition to the federal stimulus package, and to President Barack Obama's plan to close the military detention center in Guantanamo.

Bond asserted in one speech that Guantanamo has unfairly come under fire because "a bunch of West Virginia hillbillies not properly trained" committed abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

But other than controversial pronouncements, and a promise to help GOP candidates, Bond made clear that he's moving on -- and that it's time for others to run the state party.

Kinder took Bond at his word, offering up some suggestions in his Saturday afternoon speech.

Kinder said Missouri Republicans need to search out more like-minded voters, particularly in urban areas. He singled out "church-going African-Americans,'' who Kinder said often share the same views with the GOP when it comes to opposing gay marriage and abortion.

New state party chairman David Cole, a lawyer from Cassville, underscored that he also believed that Republicans needed to keep the same message -- just find better ways of delivering it.

Cole did make a point of honoring Craighead, who many Republicans say should get the bulk of credit for presidential nominee John McCain's success in narrowly carrying Missouri.

U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Strafford and now a candidate for Bond's seat, was among several weekend speakers who noted that Missouri was the only targeted presidential swing won by McCain. There were some weekend rumors that Craighead could end up in Blunt's senatorial campaign.

Soon-to-be executive director Smith is a familiar face to many Missouri Republicans. He led both of Talent's U.S. Senate bids -- the victory in 2002 and the defeat in 2006 -- and headed President George W. Bush's state re-election effort in 2004.

In 2004, Bush carried the state by almost 225,000 votes. In 2008, McCain did so by less than 4,000 -- an alarming trend for Missouri Republicans.

Among his other tasks, said Smith in his Saturday acceptance speech, was "to find those folks who maybe we disenfranchised'' and bring them back into the GOP fold.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.