COLUMBIA — Gov. Matt Blunt’s announcement Tuesday evening that he will not seek re-election this year stunned political scientists and legislators in both parties and spawned a storm of speculation about which Republican might step up to run for the state’s top government post.
Blunt, who only a week ago delivered a State of the State Address that outlined an ambitious agenda for the year, said in a video statement published on YouTube that he had accomplished all his goals as governor and that he wants to spend more time with his family.
“The habit of politicians is to remain in office, and the desire to prove oneself in the next election is strong,” Blunt said. “After a great deal of thought and prayer, and with the knowledge that we have achieved virtually everything I set out to accomplish, and more, I will not seek a second term in the upcoming election,” he said.
“Because I feel we have changed what I wanted to change in the first term, there is not the same sense of mission for a second.”
The governor has scheduled a news conference for 9:30 a.m. today at the Capitol to discuss his decision.
Attorney General Jay Nixon, the Democrat widely presumed to be the front-runner for his party’s gubernatorial nomination, issued a statement wishing Blunt and his family all the best.
“My campaign for governor has always been about moving Missouri forward,” Nixon said in the release. “I will continue to focus on changing the direction of our state so that more Missourians have access to health care, more Missourians can find good-paying jobs and more Missouri children can get the quality education they deserve.”
The most recent campaign finance report from Missourians for Matt Blunt, filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission on Jan. 15, reflected anything but a campaign that was winding down or in doubt. Blunt reported raising $872,324 from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31, and he spent $2.9 million on the campaign during the same period.
The finance report showed Blunt’s campaign still had roughly $4 million. Spokesman John Hancock said there are three options: give it to another campaign, refund the money to donors or give it to charity.
Blunt’s announcement left many state legislators scratching their heads.
“I was stunned when I heard it,” Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, said. “There were a lot of rumors circulating a year ago that he would not run for re-election and (would) go after his father’s congressional seat.”
Harris was referring to the Seventh District seat held by U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, who is also former secretary of state.
“It’s not just the announcement itself, but the timing that shocked me — just a little over a month before filing,” said Harris, who is running for attorney general. “With the State of the State address just a week ago, he laid out his budget and policy for the year. If he wasn’t going to run, I thought he would have announced (it) in the fall. I think this put his legislative agenda up in the air, and I think it puts the whole political agenda for the year up in the air.”
Democrat Chris Kelly, a former state representative from Columbia and a candidate for the 24th District House seat, said Blunt’s decision seemed reasonable given polling numbers that portended an uphill battle.
“It would have been a very difficult election,” Kelly said.
A SurveyUSA poll commissioned by KCTV-5 in July showed Nixon was heavily favored over Blunt, 57 percent to 38 percent. In November, a poll done for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and KMOV-TV showed Nixon was preferred by 51 percent of respondents.
Republican legislators who listened to a conference call from the governor before the afternoon announcement said he expressed a loss of desire for a political campaign. “What he told us was that he just did not have the same sense of mission and purpose,” said Sen. President Pro Tem Mike Gibbons, R-St. Louis County.
“Resolute and at peace were the two hallmarks of what he had to say to us.”
Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder said he had told them he “had prayed a lot about it over the last 10 days and arrived at this conclusion.”
Phyllis Fugit, chairwoman of the Boone County Democratic Party, said Blunt’s decision will boost Nixon.
“I thought Jay Nixon would win this year,” Fugit said. “And now we can count on it.”
The reaction among political scientists and other representatives of MU also reflected surprise. Blunt’s announcement comes two months after he met privately with Gary Forsee, who was chosen as the next UM system president. Forsee takes the reins Feb. 18.
UM curator Warren Erdman said he was “surprised and saddened” by the news, saying Blunt had delivered about $1 billion in new money to universities and to education in Missouri.
Erdman and MU Faculty Council Chairman Frank Schmidt, a biochemistry professor, both emphasized that Forsee’s selection was made independent of the governor’s office. Forsee’s job, Schmidt said, is to “build a consensus that supersedes politics.”
Schmidt, however, disagreed with Erdman’s assessment of Blunt’s influence on higher education. He noted that the Missouri legislature spends only 1.2 percent of state revenue on colleges and universities.
Still, Schmidt said, “It may well be that other forces in the dominant party were the ones calling the shots.”
MU political science professors James Endersby and Marvin Overby said Blunt’s decision was odd.
“I had no sense that he was going to do anything but run again,” Endersby said. “It’s unusual to announce so late. I thought it would be a Blunt-Nixon race.”
Overby said the news puts the Republican Party in a quandary because few GOP politicians enjoy statewide name recognition.
Prominent Missouri Republicans who seem certain to at least consider a bid include Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, State Treasurer Sarah Steelman, Ninth District U.S. Congressman Kenny Hulshof of Columbia and former U.S. Senator and 2000 gubernatorial candidate Jim Talent.
“There’s probably 50 other people who think they need to run,” said Endersby. “Several Republicans will express an interest quickly, but you will never know until the primaries.”
Kelly said the timing of Blunt’s speech left Steelman out of the loop; she had announced only hours before that she would seek re-election as treasurer.
“Obviously, Blunt didn’t tell her that he wasn’t going to run,” Kelly said.
Hulshof had all but decided to run for governor in 2004 but bowed out after the death of his father in late 2002, saying he needed to spend more time tending to the family farm. A spokesman at Hulshof’s Washington office wouldn’t comment on Tuesday night but said the congressman would issue a statement soon.
Kinder spokesman Jerry Dowell said the lieutenant governor is “leaning toward running based on the outpouring of support we have received. ... . We’re not ready to say. No one is ready to say they are running four hours after the governor announces he is not.”
Overby said the news isn’t good for Republicans.
“No one’s prepared,” Overby said. “I guess it’s everyone’s guess what will happen next. This certainly made an interesting political year more interesting.”
Missourian reporters Rachel Heaton, Anne Hauser, Jenn Herseim, Daniel Lawhon, Sean Madden, Rebecca Beitsch and Bria Scudder contributed to this report.