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Missouri politicians and professors weigh election results on state contests

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 4, 2009 - Nationally, Tuesday's election results undeniably offered a boost to Republican egos throughout the country -- including Missouri -- as the party and its candidates gear up for next year's far-more-pivotal contests.

For proof, consider the contrasts in the state parties' day-after reactions.

The Missouri Republican Party held a conference call with reporters to brag about the GOP victories for governor in New Jersey and Virginia.

The state Democratic Party e-mailed its reaction -- and only if asked for it.

But amid all the rosy Republican rhetoric, even that party's chief cheerleader in Jefferson City -- Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder -- offered a bit of caution as he put his spin on the election tallies and how they might relate to Missouri.

There is a threat to even favored GOP candidates, he said, if their contest "gets too nationalized."

Kinder was referring to Tuesday's only high-profile GOP loss, in which Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman failed to capture the upstate New York congressional seat in the 23rd District.

Hoffman had become the national darling of many conservatives, including the St. Louis Tea Party movement, which had even organized an election-night party here that activists hoped would be a victory celebration for him.

But Democrat Bill Owens won, helped in part by the last-minute endorsement of the GOP candidate, Dede Scozzafava, who had dropped out over the weekend amid conservative assertions that she was too liberal.

What's Important to the Voters

Kinder praised Owens as "a real fine candidate," and blasted Scozzafava. But the lieutenant governor also faulted Hoffman -- who didn't live in the 23rd congressional district -- for failing to bone up adequately on the key issues in upstate New York.

Kinder related in detail how Hoffman had faltered in a pre-election editorial board meeting with a key newspaper in the district, by stumbling over questions about local matters. Kinder added with disdain that Hoffman had been accompanied by a nationally prominent Republican, former U.S. Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, who Kinder said had dismissed the miscues "as mere parochial concerns."

Kinder went on to say that the episode underscored that candidates in Missouri and elsewhere must make sure to ignore their own pet issues, and focus instead on what's most important to the voters.

He contended that it was clear the new governor-elects in New Jersey and Virginia, Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell, had embraced that approach, by emphasizing how they would improve the economy, create jobs and keep down taxes -- the top issues on the public's minds in those states.

Those issues also will resonate with Missouri voters next year, predicted Kinder and state GOP executive director Lloyd Smith. Kinder said that Tuesday's results could signal "an ongoing vote of confidence" for the GOP majorities who now control Missouri's state House and Senate.

Smith then asserted that Tuesday's results should be a warning to three targeted Missouri Democrats -- U.S. Senate candidate Robin Carnahan and U.S. Reps. Russ Carnahan and Ike Skelton -- that their support for President Barack Obama's proposals on the environment, energy and health care "flies in the face of the electorate."

The best-known Republican running for the Senate, U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Springfield, took that approach in a fundraising appeal sent out Wednesday to potential supporters. "I was asked today if what happened in Virginia and New Jersey can happen in Missouri. You bet it can!" Blunt wrote.

"The McDonnell and Christie victories last night were rejections of the policies of the extreme left. Missourians also reject the nation's hard move left with its government takeover of everything in site, the failure to deliver on new jobs promises and the constant theft of our freedoms."

Missouri Democratic Party executive director Brian Zuzenak replied, "The results of the gubernatorial elections from last night are more reflective of the situations in Virginia and New Jersey – not national trends. However, the New York congressional race did draw the attention of Republicans nationally, and it shows that the far right wing is telling moderates they are not welcome. In a moderate state like Missouri, this could pose a serious problem for the future of the GOP."

Former state Sen. John Loudon, R-Chesterfield and an activist in the Tea Party movement here, predicted that area conservatives will seek to take some lessons from Tuesday's results and use them to advance their cause in Missouri and elsewhere next year.

Impact Will Be Limited

But several political science professors from around the state play down the impact of New Jersey, Virginia or New York contests on Missouri politics.

"It's a big risk and not very valid to take three independent races and make a national trend out of them," said Terry Jones with the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He contended that it would be wiser for activists in both parties to monitor respected polls, national and regional.

George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University in Springfield, agreed that "it's easy to make too much" of the election results.

That said, Connor added that Democrats can't ignore the Republican victories in New Jersey and Virginia, two states that Obama carried in 2008, and their potential to initially bolster support and cash for some Republican congressional challengers in states like Missouri.

Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said the recent election could affect local campaign funding, in that some GOP donors might be more willing to give if they think their party has the wind at its back going into next year. He singled out Republican Ed Martin, who is challenging Democratic incumbent Russ Carnahan of St. Louis, and the various Republicans challenging Democratic incumbent Ike Skelton of Lexington.

Robertson added that the New York contest also "may embolden some conservative challengers" to take on moderate Republican members of Congress, such as Jo Ann Emerson of Cape Girardeau.

Locally, Republican congressional challenger Liz Lauber is attempting to use the Hoffman contest to challenge the conservative credentials of the GOP incumbent she seeks to oust -- U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Town and Country.

Lauber contends that she had been a more ardent supporter of Hoffman, and asserted that Akin -- who also endorsed Hoffman -- had really been aligned with the "Washington establishment'' who she said were really to blame for Hoffman's defeat.

But Connor said he doubted that the dynamics of the East Coast contests would amount to much in Missouri's marquee contest next year -- the likely battle between Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Robin Carnahan for the Senate seat to be vacated by retiring Republican Christopher "Kit" Bond.

Connor noted that both candidates are well-known, and come from prominent political families. At the moment, the two chief lines of attack are that Blunt is too much of a Washington insider and Carnahan is too liberal.

Where There's Smoke

Democratic consultant Mike Kelley predicted that the Tuesday contests more likely to affect Missouri politics will be local: the overwhelming approval in St. Louis County of E-911, the sales-tax hike to pay for new public-safety communications equipment, and Proposition N, which bans smoking in many public places.

The fact that a smoking ban also was approved strongly in swing political turf like Kirkwood could signal that it's an issue that crosses political lines, Kelley said.

He predicted that some smart political activists may seek to put a proposed smoking ban on Missouri's statewide ballot next year.

And Republican Kinder didn't toss that idea out of hand. He said he had discussed the public smoking issue a year ago with now-Ill. Gov. Patrick Quinn, when voters in Illinois approved a statewide smoking ban for most public places.

"I don't think you can be certain," Kinder said, that a smoking ban wouldn't fly statewide. Kelley agrees, and added that it might make more sense for Missouri politicians and activists to ignore Tuesday's East Coast results, and focus more on what won Tuesday at home.

"Tuesday's big winner," he said, "may well be St. Louis County's smoking ban."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.