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At Democrat Days, Nixon leaves partisan attacks to new generation

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 2, 2013 - In his first political address since taking office, Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander readily embraced a new role Saturday as Democratic attack dog as he fired off a series of jabs and quips directed at top Republicans who, he joked, still want to ignore his election.

Kander’s brunch audience at the party’s annual Democrat Days in Hannibal, Mo., applauded as he took issue with state Auditor Tom Schweich’s recent advice to fellow Republicans that the best way to counter the GOP’s dismal statewide showing last fall was to offer up “more competent candidates.”

The string of Democratic statewide victories really showed, said Kander, that Republicans need “more competent ideas.”

Among other things, Kander cited the GOP’s opposition to expanding Medicaid in the state, even though the federal government would pick up all the costs for three years, and at least 90 percent in later years.

The crowd roared when Kander – in an indirect reference to the 1803 Louisiana Purchase – asserted that the Medicaid expansion was a no-brainer:  “The last time Missourians saw a deal like this was when we were bought from France for 3 cents an acre.”

Kander’s rousing remarks overshadowed the subsequent speech by Gov. Jay Nixon, who continued his longstanding habit – even at political events – of focusing on policy and avoiding such partisan words as “Democrat’’ and “Republican.”

Nixon instead reprised many of his governmental pitches of late, beginning with his own focus on pressing Republican legislative leaders to embrace the Medicaid expansion called for under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.  

The governor didn’t jab at anybody.

"I just don't think that injecting the partisan, hyper-political Washington rhetoric into the Show Me State is good for politics or good for policy," Nixon explained to reporters later.

But Saturday’s contrast in styles may have been intentional.

Nixon discourages 2016 presidential talk

Kander’s address at Democrat Days – a regional event that officially kicks off the party’s political year – was among several marquee speeches during the weekend by the party’s down-ballot victors last fall who were overshadowed throughout much of 2012 by the duo at the top of the state’s Democratic ticket: Nixon and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill.

Attorney General Chris Koster, widely believed to be planning a 2016 bid for governor, was to emcee the evening banquet while the keynote speaker was slated to be state Department of Agriculture chief Jonathan Hagler,  rumored to be considering a run for some unspecified statewide office.

Nixon can’t seek re-election and, instead, appears to be focusing on burnishing his credentials as a can-do Democrat in a sharply partisan state government, where the General Assembly is controlled by Republicans.

The governor said as much in an interview with reporters after the brunch: “My focus, in the short run, is getting things done.”

Meanwhile,  McCaskill skipped Democrat Days to campaign instead for Democrats in other states.

The senator’s sister, Anne McCaskill Moroh, showed up as her surrogate, and briefly thanked the brunch crowd for their help in the senator’s re-election last fall.  

Moroh also channeled her sister’s sharp political tongue, when she praised the singing of local Judge Rachel Bringer Shepherd, who led the audience in a rendition of “God Bless America.”

The crowd hooted its approval when Moroh quipped that Shepard’s voice was preferable to “the Republicans’ favorite jerk, Ted Nugent.”

During his after-brunch interview, Nixon demurred when asked about the “Nixon for president 2016’’ campaign buttons on sale. (They were produced by St. Louis activist Bob Levine without the governor’s knowledge.)

The governor reaffirmed that he plans to support former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, should she choose to run. “She’s exceptionally qualified, politically vetted and deserves a good window of time to recharge and make her decision,” Nixon said.

He also quipped that he hopes his wife, Georganne Nixon, doesn’t see the campaign button.

Rural Democrats still under siege

For all the revelry celebrating last fall’s statewide Democratic wins, the Missouri GOP’s continued legislative successes continue to be a source of Democratic concern.

At a morning news conference Saturday at Democrat Days, two state representatives – Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, and Ed Schieffer, D-Troy – announced plans to run for the state Senate in 2014.

Roorda plans to seek the 22nd District seat in Jefferson County now held by Ryan McKenna, who can’t seek re-election because of term limits, while Schieffer is running for the 10th District seat that was moved across the state by redistricting. The 10th is now held by Senate Minority Floor Leader Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City.

Schieffer and Roorda said their views are in line with many in their districts: “pro-life, pro-gun, pro-labor.”

Schieffer observed that he agrees with Justus on many issues but not on others. Implicit was the fact that Justus has gone public as a lesbian.

Schieffer contended that it’s important for rural Democrats, in particular, to make a point of their conservative social views so that like-minded voters won’t ignore them out of hand.

To make his point, Schieffer singled out a fellow Democrat standing in the back of the room – former state Rep. Tom Shively, D-Shelbyville. Shively was defeated last fall, Schieffer said, because Republicans had once again been successful in branding Shively, a Catholic, as pro-abortion and anti-gun.

But Roorda said he was confident that 2014 will be different, especially since Republicans in the General Assembly have been spending a lot of time this session going after labor rights, by pressing for legislation that bars payroll deduction of union dues and ends the use of the "prevailing wage'' to set pay for construction workers on publicly funded construction projects.

Roorda contended that independents and moderate Republicans are being turned off, which could help Democrats. "This is not your father's Republican Party," he said. "I don't think we've got to do a lot of selling to make people understand that."

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