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Latest attacks in Missouri's U.S. Senate contest may later show up in TV attack ads

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 25, 2012 - Missouri’s major candidates for the U.S. Senate have been sparring the last couple days on a number of different issues, big and small, that may not attract much public attention at the moment – but likely will be featured in TV ads a few months from now.

Although the issues varied, the objective of the opposition’s jabs was generally the same – to raise questions about the rival candidate’s judgment.

And as in many things political, there's an indirect link with campaign money -- some involving SuperPACs.

A key aspect of the exchanges was that the Republicans involved weren’t attacking each other, but directing their fire at U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

The Missouri Democratic Party, not McCaskill, fired off the verbal shots at the Republicans.

Vi-Jon versus SuperPACs

Tuesday afternoon saw the latest lob, when the state Democratic Party jabbed at St. Louis businessman John Brunner, a Republican, over the news that the firm his family founded – Vi-Jon, which specializes in personal-care products like Germ-X — had seen its credit rating downgraded by Moody’s Investor Services, one of the nation’s major ratings services.

In a statement earlier this month, Moody’s attributed the downgrade to “management turnover and an inability to pass on rising input costs due to its more limited pricing flexibility and high retail concentration.” A top Moody’s executive did add that the company’s profitability was expected to improve over the next 12-18 months.

The downgrade comes just months after Vi-Jon laid off an undisclosed number of workers.

Asserted Democratic Party spokeswoman Caitlin Legacki: "It would seem that John Brunner, despite his misleading job creator ads, is once again dealing with the fallout of his risky business dealings. Over the past year, John Brunner’s spent millions to depict himself as a successful businessman, but recent layoffs at his company, the company's recent credit downgrade and Vi-Jon's previous issues with carrying too much debt raise very serious questions about his ability to run a business, let alone be trusted with taxpayer dollars.”

Brunner spokesman Todd Abrajano noted that Brunner left as Vi-Jon’s top executive in 2009 and pointed out that Moody’s downgrade appeared linked largely to conditions since Brunner’s departure. 

Brunner's campaign said that rising gas prices, for example, had led to rising transportation costs that Vi-Jon could not pass on via higher product prices.

Abrajano also asserted that Democrats were to blame for the economic conditions that have hurt Vi-Jon’s profitability.

"In John’s 33 years at Vi-Jon, this small family business created thousands of manufacturing jobs. On his watch, the company grew from 80 to over 1,400 employees, through good times and bad,” Abrajano said. “The real issue here is that Claire McCaskill and Barack Obama have fueled one of the worst economic downturns in our country’s history, impacting businesses both large and small. “

Brunner’s attempt to distance himself from Vi-Jon’s recent economic troubles is made more difficult by the fact that he kicked off his U.S. Senate campaign last year in a Vi-Jon warehouse, surrounded by Vi-Jon employees – some of whom addressed the crowd.

Brunner also remains on Vi-Jon's board of directors.

Late Monday, it was Brunner on the attack when his campaign accused McCaskill of violating Senate ethics rules during a televised appearance on MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews.”  She was standing in an alcove of the Senate’s Russell Office Building regularly used for TV interviews.

Abrajano asserted that McCaskill improperly “solicited campaign contributions in a federal office building” in her response to a question posed by Matthews about the largely anonymous funding of SuperPACs running attack ads against her.

SuperPACs can accept donations of any size, and can run ads for or against a candidate, as long as they don't coordinate their activities with the candidate's campaign.

McCaskill’s reply included her observation that “I’m asking regular folks to be my SuperPAC,’’ and she took note that people can donate as little as $25 on her campaign website, ClaireMcCaskill.com.

Said Abrajano: “Missourians should be outraged at Sen. McCaskill's behavior and demand that she immediately apologize and accept whatever reprimand that is required by the Senate."

McCaskill spokesman Erik Dorey replied: "There is nothing wrong with informing the general public that they too can fight super PACs through smaller, accountable contributions. … That is not a solicitation in any way.”

Ironically, Brunner’s seemingly unrelated endorsement Tuesday by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce fit into both attacks.

The chamber’s support is seen as bolstering Brunner’s image as a successful businessman. But the chamber also has a SuperPAC that already has spent sizable sums on TV ads attacking McCaskill

UPDATE: On Wednesday, Crossroads GPS -- a SuperPAC with ties to former Bush advisor Karl Rove -- launched a new TV ad campaign in Missouri against McCaskill.

Crossroads says it's spending $315,000 to air the ad around the state, a significant buy. The ad, like many of Crossroads' previous productions, attacks McCaskill for her support of some of the federal spending programs, notably the stimulus spending,  initiated by Democrats, including President Barack Obama.

McCaskill has defended the federal stimulus spending, noting that it helped General Motors -- which has a plant in Wentzville -- stay in business when bankruptcy loomed in 2009. GM is now expanding operations, and making a profit. End update

Violence against Women Act vs. 'Women of Steel'

Meanwhile, another Republican U.S. Senate hopeful – former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman – has become an internet sensation with the circulation of a video of a campaign stop last weekin which Steelmen said she was unfamiliar with the Violence Against Women Act.

The U.S. Senate is considering a bill to reauthorize the act, first passed in 1994, which directs federal money to probe and prosecute violent crimes against women. The GOP opposes Democratic efforts to expand the act’s provisions to include violence against same-sex couples and women who are illegal immigrants.

In response to an attendee’s question about the act, Steelman replied, “I’m not sure what that is because I’m not serving right now.”

That response prompted newspaper articles and editorials as well a disparaging story on the liberal Huffington Post.

State Democratic Party spokeswoman Legacki asserted that the incident showed that Steelman is “unprepared to serve in the Senate.”

McCaskill ignored Steelman, but targeted “Republican men in the Senate,” with a missive emailed late Tuesday in which she exhorted supporters to go to her campaign website and “sign our petition right now to help protect women from domestic violence” by calling for reauthorization of the act.

McCaskill takes note of her earlier stint as Jackson County prosecutor.

Steelman countered Tuesday by announcing the formation of a new campaign advisory groupmade up of conservative women and called “Women of Steel.”

The group will focus on various issues, including health care and the economy, Steelman’s campaign said.

The co-chairs are Jackie Stiles, a businesswoman in Springfield, Mo., and Jeanne Sinquefield, a retired financial manager who now is a prominent philanthropist. Sinquefield also is married to financier Rex Sinquefield, who has become Missouri’s most generous Republican donor.

UPDATE: Rex Sinquefield  has donated $100,000 to a new SuperPAC, called the "Now or Never PAC," set up to help Steelman. The formation of the political action committee, first reported by the Springfield News-Leader, had been expected for some time.

Steelman has had trouble raising money for her campaign, which is restricted in the size of the donations allowed. ($2,500 from individuals and $5,000 from PACs.)  SuperPACc can accept unlimited contributions, but they cannot coordinate their activities with the candidate's campaign.

Sinquefield is not the PAC's largest donor. Contractor Stanley Herzog of St. Joseph, Mo. -- another longstanding GOP donor -- gave $250,000. End update

The Sinquefields’ alliance with Steelman arguably could be the most newsworthy aspect of all the latest attacks and counterattacks in the Senate contest.

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.