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ANALYSIS: Statehouse and gubernatorial candidates stress agrarian image in campaigns

Sunday, July 6, 2008 | 7:42 p.m. CDT; updated 3:51 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Tractors, boots, dogs and dirt roads.

All are good — very good, judging from the images being broadcast to Missourians.

Aspiring governors and lawmakers are targeting potential voters with TV ads rich in rural scenery. It’s a tactic that may appeal not only to farmers but even to city slickers searching for the hardworking, commonsense qualities that farmers have come to represent.

That’s because the connection between agriculture and America is older than the nation itself.

“There’s always this notion of a citizen-farmer, going back to the days of (Thomas) Jefferson, that people who work with the soil have more integrity, that it’s an honest way to earn a living,” said Randy Hagerty, chairman of the political science department at Truman State University, located in predominantly rural northern Missouri.

If a candidate grasps hold of that agrarian image, then “you put yourself forward in the tradition of many great political leaders,” Hagerty said.

Perhaps nowhere is the rural campaign motif more obvious than in the 9th Congressional District, which stretches from northeast Missouri down to the Interstate 70 corridor between St. Charles and Columbia, and loops south around the capital to include part of the Lake of the Ozarks.

Democrat Steve Gaw and Republican Blaine Luetkemeyer — two of 10 candidates in the race — both recently began running TV ads with a strong country twang.

Luetkemeyer, wearing blue jeans, a plaid shirt and a camouflage hat, is shown standing on a ladder leaned up against the roof of a farm building.

“Just like this old shed, Congress is broke, and it’s time we fixed it,” Luetkemeyer declares in his ad, delivering a firm hammer whack to the shed.

Gaw, also in blue jeans, is shown riding and leading a horse as a strumming guitar provides a background tune.

“His boots usually have a little mud on them,” the announcer proclaims as the ad begins. Near its end, Gaw’s 6-year-old daughter runs up and asks: “Whatcha doing?”

“Well first, I’m going to clean up these boots,” Gaw responds. “Then I’m going to clean up Congress.”

Although Gaw owns a horse farm in Callaway County, the farm in the ad belong to his parents, who live in Randolph County near Moberly.

Gaw built a career in Jefferson City, helping lead the 1994 impeachment investigation into Secretary of State Judi Moriarty, rising to become House speaker, running unsuccessfully for secretary of state in 2000, then serving on the utility-regulating Missouri Public Service Commission.

Given all that, why is it important to highlight his boots?

“We’re just talking about things in this ad that are portraying me and what my values are and what my roots are,” Gaw said.

Luetkemeyer also built a career in business and politics. He’s a banker, insurance agency owner and former state tourism director who while a House member ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer in 2004.

The shed in his ad really does need repair and is located on Luetkemeyer’s Miller County livestock farm that has remained in the family for several generations, said campaign spokesman Paul Sloca. But an orange-vested hunter pictured in the ad isn’t Luetkemeyer, and the hunting dog isn’t his either.

Sloca said hunting video was stock footage obtained by the campaign.

“He does hunt,” Sloca said. “That day was just too wet” when the commercial was filmed.

In another ad, an announcer notes the National Rifle Association membership of Republican congressional candidate Bob Onder as he is shown walking in blue jeans down a dirt road, talking to farmers while people ride a tractor and horse in the background.

Onder is physician, attorney and freshman state House member from Lake St. Louis. Campaign spokesman Jay Barnes said the commercial was filmed in Crawford County. But he stressed that Onder owns land with a hunting cabin near the Adair and Sullivan county lines, where he shoots at deer in the fall and turkeys in the spring.

The congressional candidates aren’t the only ones displaying their rural sides.

U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof’s gubernatorial campaign commercials contain clips of him walking through his 475-acre farm in Mississippi County, which he inherited from his parents. One ad shows him driving a pickup truck with a dog running alongside.

Hulshof actually lives in Columbia, though he does return to the farm to help with planting, harvesting and other chores, said campaign spokesman Scott Baker.

Hulshof’s Republican gubernatorial rival, Treasurer Sarah Steelman, lives in a residential neighborhood in Rolla, but that hasn’t stopped her from interspersing rural scenery in her ads.

Steelman traveled to the Platte County farm of former U.S. Attorney Todd Graves to take campaign pictures of her walking in a rural setting with her husband, playing football and sitting on the front porch of a home with her family, said campaign spokesman Spence Jackson.

The political attention to agricultural imagery may illustrate several facts beyond the importance of rural voters, said Bill Benoit, a professor in the MU communication department who studies political ads.

Key among those points is that Congress is not too popular right now. Politicians are trying to distance themselves from the halls of government and instead position themselves as outsiders — and farmers fit that mold, Benoit said.

“Even if you’re not a farmer and don’t want to be a farmer, you can still admire self-reliance, hard work and think they have values,” Benoit said. “That could appeal to urban dwellers, especially if they think there’s a contrast between some farmer and some politician who trades favors and does influence-peddling.”


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