JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Matt Blunt isn’t running for re-election this year. But his record in office is.
Rather than running away from Blunt, the two Republicans vying to succeed him are running at least partially on Blunt’s record — especially as they try to appeal to fellow Republicans.
U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof and Treasurer Sarah Steelman both have lavished praise on Blunt for what they describe as Missouri’s improved business climate and budget surplus. Hulshof also has lauded Blunt for making tough choices — highlighting the very 2005 Medicaid cuts that the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Attorney General Jay Nixon, derides as “a huge, fundamental public policy mistake.”
Although polls showed Nixon ahead before Blunt announced Jan. 22 that he will not seek re-election, the Republican gubernatorial hopefuls believe there is plenty in Blunt’s record worth embracing.
Speaking at the Republicans’ statewide Lincoln Days, Steelman connected herself to Blunt, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and Republican legislative leaders by suggesting they all worked together to improve the state’s finances.
“We did have a budget deficit” when Blunt and the others took office in January 2005, Steelman said. “But now we have a budget surplus.”
Hulshof, speaking to those same Republicans a week ago, said Missouri was in poor shape when Blunt took over.
“Thanks to the leadership of the governor, who had to make some tough choices, and some of these guys who are here,” Hulshof said pointing to House Speaker Rod Jetton, “at the state level, they’ve been able to balance our state books with a modest surplus, and they did not go into our wallets and take more from us.”
Their remarks were not just casual, off-the-cuff statements.
In interviews, Hulshof and Steelman repeated their kind words for Blunt.
Asked what Blunt’s administration had done well and what needs to be changed, Hulshof rattled off a list of Blunt accomplishments. More jobs, no funding cuts for schools, a budget surplus, tax cuts and changes to the government health care system for the poor — “all of those are forward thinking ideas,” he said.
“Where we are is certainly markedly better than where we were three years and a couple months ago” when Blunt took office, Hulshof said. “It’s a much more positive picture for all Missourians.”
Steelman said one of her campaign themes is “to make sure that we have restored the public trust.” But that’s aimed at a general perception people have of politicians in Jefferson City and Washington, not at Blunt’s administration in particular, she said.
“I’m not saying Matt Blunt has damaged the public trust,” Steelman said. To the contrary, “I think Matt has done a good job as governor.”
The early campaign approach of Hulshof and Steelman seems similar to that of Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who also is attempting to succeed an incumbent of his same party, President Bush.
Most notably, McCain has aligned himself with Bush’s decision to increase troops in Iraq to quell insurgents instead of pulling out troops as was favored by many Democrats. McCain has stuck by Bush on Iraq even though polls show a majority of the public has turned against the war. That position may be far safer in a Republican primary than the general election.
Steelman and Hulshof easily could separate themselves from Blunt if they chose to do so; neither had any role in Blunt’s decisions, nor did they vote on Blunt’s proposals in the legislature, as McCain did for Bush’s decisions in Congress.
Eventually, both candidates may have to back away from Blunt on certain topics, said political scientist George Connor, of Missouri State University. For example, to appeal to socially conservative primary voters, Hulshof and Steelman may need to separate themselves from Blunt’s support for embryonic stem cell research, Connor said.
The day after Blunt’s exit from the governor’s race, Nixon indicated he will continue to campaign against Blunt’s record, particularly the Medicaid cuts.
“The issues haven’t changed,” Nixon said. “Just because the governor has decided not to run doesn’t mean that 400,00 people who had their health care cut have had it restored.”
But Republican gubernatorial candidates don’t necessarily have to denounce Blunt’s Medicaid cuts to win the election, Connor said. To the contrary, the cuts may play well with some fiscally conservative Missourians not personally affected by the reductions in Medicaid benefits.
“I think there is more of an advantage in the Republican primary” for candidates to stand by Blunt, Connor said, “and I think there may still be an advantage to embracing his record in the general election.”