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Montee blames loss of 'redirected' campaign money for her 2012 defeat

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 1, 2013: Amid all the attention to the recent comments by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and Gov. Jay Nixon in support of gay rights, many have overlooked the first prominent Missouri Democrat who recently aired such sentiment:

Former state Auditor Susan Montee.

Almost two weeks ago, Montee announced her support for a proposed initiative-petition drive to put a measure on the 2014 ballot that would expand anti-discrimination protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity. But the news release attracted little coverage.

In some ways, the fact that her declaration drew such little publicity was in line with Montee’s recent political history.

Montee was the one Missouri statewide Democratic candidate who lost last November 6. Her defeat for lieutenant governor marked her second statewide loss in two years, after losing her state auditor post in 2010 to Republican Tom Schweich.

For the most part, her 2012 loss has been overlooked by the other four Democratic statewide wins.

In a recent interview with the Beacon, Montee said she’s come to terms with last fall's unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor, losing to Republican incumbent Peter Kinder, who successfully won a third term.

But Montee wouldn't mind if fellow Democrats drew some lessons from her loss.  She ascribes her defeat largely to two reasons – the crowded Democratic primary last summer and her unsuccessful effort to raise money for the general election. And she sees a connection between the two.

Lieutenant governor was the only post that attracted several high-profile Democratic candidates (most of them women) who battled it out in the August 2012 primary. Montee had been the early favorite, and won by almost 30 percentage points over the second-placed rival.

In the other statewide contests, Democrats faced no serious primary challengers.

Montee noted that a number of major Democrat donor groups – notably, labor – chose to stay out of the packed lieutenant governor’s primary when it came to money, citing their favorable view of several of the contenders.

But after she won the primary, Montee said money for the general election didn’t come her way either -- even the campaign cash promised earlier -- as unions and other major Democratic donors focused instead on the other statewide contests.

“It’s the race that nobody cared about,’’ Montee said. “When the races got prioritized for the general election, I was the low man on the totem pole.”

Cites campaign money 'redirected' to Nixon, others

To hear Montee tell it, campaign money that had been promised her early on for the final weeks – from labor and other sources -- ended up getting “redirected’’ to the coffers of other Democratic statewide candidates, mainly Gov. Jay Nixon.

When she made pitches for money, Montee said, “The answer was, the money had to go to Jay.”

Reports filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission do show a flood of last-minute labor money to Nixon, with little going to other Democratic statewide candidates, including Montee.

“The governor certainly… felt like he needed a lot of money because (wealthy Republican rival) Dave Spence at any point in time could just write himself a check,” Montee said.

She added that Nixon’s concerns were legitimate, since Spence did pour in more of his own millions, up until right before the election.

But the upshot, for her campaign, was brutal. The planned TV campaign ads had to be pulled because of the lack of money.

“I basically ‘went dark’ the last week of the campaign and it was because money that had been promised to me got redirected,” Montee said.

“We had the money committed to pay for the last week of ads, and it went away on us…That’s what happened.’’

“I think if we had maintained our TV ads, we could have pulled it off.”

Montee added that she was grateful to McCaskill who, although in a re-election contest attracting national attention, gave $25,000 to Montee in the final weeks to help keep Montee’s radio ads on the air.

Despite complaints, no regrets

Montee emphasized that she wasn’t bitter about her experience, just realistic.

She noted that when she got in the lieutenant governor’s race initially in 2011, then-House Speaker Steve Tilley was the expected GOP nominee “and he already had $1 million.”

“I was reconciled to the fact that I might not win it, but I felt certain that I would make him spend all of his money in his own race and not give to other people.” Montee said.

Montee’s political calculations changed when Tilley unexpected dropped out in late 2011, prompting a GOP reshuffling. Democrats then thought they had a shot at snagging the seat, particularly since Kinder was in the midst of controversy in 2011 over his acknowledged acquaintance with a former stripper.

That Democratic reassessment, in turn, prompted more contenders to jump in, including former state Reps. Sara Lampe, D-Springfield; Judy Baker, D-Columbia; and Fred Kratky, D-St. Louis.

“Looking back on it, I had made a decision to run for the good of the party,” Montee said. “And this primary thing was just … a little bizarre.”

She’s now back in her private sector careers as a lawyer and as an accountant. Although only 53, Montee said she has no plans to run for office again. She added with a chuckle that some have told her that she might be too old (even though Nixon is 57 and McCaskill is 59).

Reflecting on her 2012 bid, Montee observed that she didn’t want to make it sound as if she were bitter and angry. “I felt I did this for all the right reasons. I don’t have any regrets about having done it. I was very disappointed in some of the people who I expected to be there for me, but who weren’t.”

Montee added that she long understood that politics is “an ugly business.”

Assessing her back-to-back losses, Montee observed that her 2010 defeat was “out of my hands’’ because a national Republican wave swept the state.  “But 2012 shouldn’t have been.”

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.

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