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Looking past 2012 elections, Missouri Republicans gather for Lincoln Days

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 15, 2013 - As Missouri Republicans gathered in the Gateway City for their annual Lincoln Days celebration, many of the party faithful are hoping to rebound from an unfulfilling election.

Although the GOP now holds huge majorities in the state House and Senate, its candidates lost four of the five statewide posts on November ballots.

But some prominent Republicans are already looking ahead to 2016.

Former state House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, a Republican from St. Louis County, said in an interview Saturday that she is considering a bid for attorney general or governor in 2016.

“I am spending 2013 traveling the state'' and talking to Republican donors, said Hanaway. She was the first – and to date only – female speaker of the Missouri House, serving in 2003-2004. In late 2004, she lost a close race for secretary of state to Democrat Robin Carnahan.

After that election cycle, Hanaway served as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri. After she left that position, Hanaway joined the law firm created by former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, also a former Missouri governor and U.S. senator.

Missouri has never elected a female governor or attorney general. Then-state Auditor Claire McCaskill came close in 2004, when she lost narrowly to Republican Matt Blunt.

As the featured speaker at Saturday's Lincoln Days luncheon, Hanaway's message -- by coincidence -- meshed with Jindal's remarks a few hours later.

The two-day gathering of Republicans at the Renaissance Grand Hotel in downtown St. Louis is the state GOP’s biggest social gathering, an opportunity for party activists and operatives to connect with the party’s elected officials.

The event officially kicked off on Friday afternoon, with House Speaker Tim Jones’ reception in the mezzanine level of the hotel. While most of Friday was relatively informal, the evening's banquet did feature speeches by the state’s top elected officials.

Schweich, Kinder rouse party faithful

\That included state Auditor Tom Schweich, who will be the lone statewide incumbent on the ballot next year. He hit some of the party's issues head-on in his address during his address.

Although the GOP captured veto-proof majorities in both General Assembly chambers, Republicans lost four out of five statewide offices to Democratic opponents.

And their effort to unseat U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill ended disastrously, with former U.S. Rep. Todd Akin losing to the Democratic incumbent by a landslide.

That reality was perhaps best expressed by Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who was once again the only GOP candidate to win a statewide race last year. He quipped: “It’s getting kind of lonely. We need to do something about this.”

Schweich put things a bit more bluntly.

In his speech, the first-term statewide official said the party needs to deal head on with its factionalism, its statewide campaigns and with how candidates behave in a high-pressure environment.

For instance, he said it was mistake to assume that a candidate who was funding his own campaign wouldn’t need assistance from the party’s apparatus. Candidates also need to know if they are running in a race where they didn’t belong, he said.

"A lot of times there's overreach," Schweich said. "I was actually approached -- some of you remember this -- in 2010 to run for U.S. Senate. I had been an ambassador and a prosecutor and worker in the U.N. under John Bolton and Jack Danforth. But that wasn't the right race for someone running for the first time. It was overreach. So I ran for auditor."

"So let's make sure our candidates are running in the right races," he added.

More than anything, Schweich urged Republicans to deal head on with its factionalism.

He specifically wanted to strike from the party’s lexicon words such as “establishment,” “RINO,” “right-wing crazy” and “Tea Party crazy.” Such division, he said, provided a disincentive for people to join the party.

"Every person in this room is better for America than Barack Obama," he said. "Every person in this room is better for Missouri than Jay Nixon. We need to unite around highly qualified, competent candidates, recognize their values, support them at the grassroots. If we do that, I'll hopefully win in 2014. And we'll have a clean sweep in 2016."

In perhaps a reference to Akin’s comments about rape and pregnancy that sank his campaign, Dave Spence – the party’s nominee for governor last year – beseeched future candidates to “stay on topics that win elections.”

“Don’t beat the drum on issues that lose elections,” Spence said. “We would rather beat a drum on the inaugural parade than beat the drum on something that doesn’t win.”

Both Kinder and Schweich urged the party to court the party’s grassroots activists aggressively. That was a message echoed by U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, a Ballwin Republican who was elected to Congress last year.

“Loss is never permanent. Victory is never permanent. But the battle is always permanent,” Wagner said. “And you are the warriors that get it done.”

In addition to looking to the past, multiple speakers looked to an election on the horizon: the June 4 special election in the state’s 8th congressional district.

That’s where House Speaker Pro Tem Jason Smith, R-Salem, will be running as the Republican nominee in the seat formerly held by U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson. (The Democratic nominee is to be selected on Saturday.)

Some speakers – including Wagner and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. – told the crowd to send Smith both financial and organizational support.

In his remarks, Smith touched on some of the themes in his speech last week in Van Buren, where he won the nomination on the 6th ballot. 

He chastised the federal government for its budgetary issues, adding that he would prefer that the federal government acted more like Missouri on fiscal matters.

"What I think we need to do is to make Washington be a little bit more like Missouri," he said. 

Smith pledged to bring Republicans of all stripes -- including those who supported the presidential candidacies of former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex., former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn. -- together.

And Smith, a 32-year-old attorney, took note of frequent comments about his youthfulness, touting it as an asset before he goes to Washington, D.C.

"A lot of the naysayers they look at me and say 'hey, it's a young guy. He may not have the experience in Washington to make it,' " Smith said. "I don't want Washington experience. I want the experience of Missouri. I want the experience to represent rural Missouri."

Barrasso rallies GOP

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso was Friday night’s keynote speaker. The Wyoming senator was re-elected last year with over 70 percent of the vote in the deeply Republican state.

He, too, touched on the party's disappointments on the national level, which included a re-election victory for President Barack Obama and Democrats gaining seats in both chambers of U.S. Congress.

"To quote that great Missourian Mark Twain: 'The reports of our death are greatly exaggerated,'" Barrasso said. "Roy and I are not going to spend our time wringing our hands or licking our wounds. We are completely engaged in the fight."

He noted Republicans still hold more than two dozen governorships and control a number of state legislatures. He also said the 2014 U.S. Senate elections will be more favorable to the GOP.

Looking to 2016, Barrasso predicted that Republicans will be looking at a "new generation" of Republican leaders during that year's presidential election. He compared the possible GOP candidates -- including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal -- to Democratic hopefuls like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden.

"When the Democrats look to their bench for 2016 for president, you're either talking about 69-year-old Hillary Clinton or 73-year-old Joe Biden," Barrasso said. "Our candidate, you will know, will be from a new generation."

Jindal, by the way, will speak at Saturday night's banquet.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.