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Missouri campaigns are embracing the new, still using the old

Eric Greitens, who is seeking the GOP nomination for governor, opened a campaign office in Crestwood earlier this week. Feb. 8 2016
Jo Mannies | St. Louis Public Radio

For all the months of declarations and endorsements, the campaign season really gets underway when candidates begin opening their field offices, and their first TV ads hit the airwaves. The season also often kicks off with a broadside attack.

This week, all three happened.

In the St. Louis area, Republican gubernatorial candidate Eric Greitens opened a regional office in Crestwood and addressed a packed office while doing so.

And on the TV front, state Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, launched his first television spot in his bid to be the state’s next treasurer. His TV ad is believed to be the first by a down-ballot statewide candidate in Missouri.

That ad fit the standard campaign mold by focusing on Schmitt’s background, promoting his conservative record and ignoring any potential rivals.  Among other things,the ad highlights Schmitt’s opposition to Planned Parenthood and “radical Islamic terrorists.”

In a subtle message to possible opponents, the spot also highlights Schmitt’s hefty campaign bank account ($2.1 million) – since only well-heeled candidates run TV ads so early.

Greitens’ series of field offices send a similar signal, since Greitens has the most campaign money of the four announced Republican candidates for governor.

Campaign-office openings and TV ads also exemplify the old ways of doing things. Already, the 2016 campaign season is seeing a collision of the old and new ways of reaching voters.

For example:

Arguably the first ads in Missouri’s crowded contest for governor  have been aired by Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat, and Republican John Brunner. But neither were on TV.

Brunner has been running radio ads, which can be viewed on his website with a visual component – and a request that the viewer donate money to keep the ad on the air.

A tweet from Democratic gubernatorial contender Chris Koster Feb 11 2016
Credit Screen capture
A tweet from Democratic gubernatorial contender Chris Koster

And for weeks, Koster has been peppering Twitter almost daily with mini-ads that fit the social-media site’s 140-character limit, but include professional photos.

Candidates also have Facebook pages that promote their latest activities and often link to their web ads.

Missouri Republican Party chairman John Hancock, a longtime political consultant, says social-media offers a cheaper – and often, more targeted – way for candidates to reach potential voters.

On Twitter, for example, a candidate can direct that his or her ads go to the accounts of people who fit a certain profile – such as those who are “following’’ a lot of news outlets or certain politicians.

Such Tweet ads, he said, also aren’t limited to the people who are “following’’ the candidate producing the ad.

“Digital advertising is much cheaper than broadcast,’’ Hancock said. “I think you’re going to see broadcast TV ads waning in their influence.”

Why endorsements matter

The longstanding tradition of high-profile endorsements also appears to live on. In recent weeks, various candidates – notably Greitens and GOP lieutenant governor contender Mike Parson – have rolled out a series of endorsements.

Greitens’ big-name supporters include former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman and her husband, prominent lawyer David Steelman, as well as former state Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue.

Lamping had been campaign chairman for gubernatorial candidate Tom Schweich’s campaign, until Schweich killed himself almost a year ago. On Monday night, Lamping was among the speakers at Greitens’ office-opening in Crestwood, saying in an interview that he believed Greitens had the leadership qualities that Missouri needs.

Missouri Sen. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar
Credit MoHorizonNews | Flickr
Missouri Sen. Mike Parson of Bolivar is running to be the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor.

Meanwhile, Parson has announced the support of another Schweich backer – former Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo. – as well as the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association and the Missouri Pork Association. One of Parson's announced opponents is Kansas City attorney Bev Randles, who is backed by retired financier Rex Sinquefield.

Dave Robertson, head of the political science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said endorsements can provide a candidate with legitimacy, respectability and visibility – all necessary factors to attract votes and campaign cash.

Hancock says that’s particularly true of down-ballot contests, such as lieutenant governor, where the candidates may not be as well known to the public.

But Robertson warns that, this year anyway, endorsements may carry a risk.

“In a year where there are a whole lot of people who are upset about the establishment, some of those endorsements may wind up doing more harm than good,’’ the professor said. “It may make you look like an establishment candidate.”

That may not be a good spot for any candidate in 2016, Robertson said. “This is an anti-establishment year.”

Blunt says his deferments were never a secret

The aforementioned broadside attack was leveled at one such candidate long deemed part of the Republican establishment: U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

Blunt found himself on the defensive Wednesday about his actions from almost 50 years ago.

Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt are the front runners for the Democratic and Republican nominations in the next Senate race.
Credit official photos
Jason Kander, left, and Roy Blunt

The Kansas City Star reported that the senator failed to mention that he had three student deferments while he was in college during the Vietnam War. The Star turned up evidence of the deferments through a Freedom of Information Act request filed a year ago. The documents were just recently obtained, the paper said.

Blunt told reporters in a conference call that he has never misled the public about his lack of military service during the Vietnam War, whether or not he was specific about the college deferments. Press coverage when he ran for governor in 1992 made note that Blunt didn't serve in the conflict.

He went to college when he was 17, and obtained the three deferments during his three years in school. 

“I am sure if I was ever asked about deferments, I always gave the same answer,” Blunt said. “I went to college in three years. At the end of that, I was subject to the draft, was part of the first lottery where names were drawn.”

After graduation, Blunt received a high number in the military lottery, which meant he would not be drafted. He has cited that high lottery number at various times during his political career.

Blunt’s Democratic challenger, Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, is an Army veteran. Kander’s campaign accused Blunt of hiding his deferments, because there’s little evidence that he publicly talked about them.

“As someone who volunteered to serve in Afghanistan, it's personally disappointing to me that, according to today's report, a United States senator would spend decades misleading his state and country about his draft record,” Kander said. “I don't sit in judgment of anyone who chose not to serve in Vietnam, but hiding three deferments and saying you couldn't remember them is completely inexcusable. Senator Blunt owes all Missourians an explanation for his actions and veterans an apology for insulting their sacrifice.”

Blunt declined to reply to Kander’s jab. The senator was honored this week by the Veterans of Foreign Wars for his Senate work on behalf of veterans, and told reporters that he was thrilled by the group’s “lifetime achievement” award.

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