JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri’s Republican gubernatorial candidates defended past cuts to the state Medicaid program Tuesday while trying to distinguish themselves as the most ethical and frugal candidates in the race.
U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof and Treasurer Sarah Steelman are trying to persuade Aug. 5 primary voters that each would be the best Republican to go up against Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon in the November general election.
Their debate Tuesday on St. Louis radio station KMOX came just hours after Nixon outlined a health care plan calling for the restoration of the Republican-led 2005 cuts to Missouri’s Medicaid system. Nixon also proposed to make government-run health care available to children from middle-class families.
Both Steelman and Hulshof said they backed Gov. Matt Blunt’s decision and rationale for the Medicaid cuts — that they were necessary to balance a budget growing beyond the state’s means. And they dismissed Nixon’s assertion that his health care plan could be accomplished without raising taxes.
Steelman and Hulshof entered the governor’s race only after Blunt announced in January that he would not seek re-election. Nixon has been running for governor for several years, with the Medicaid cuts as a central campaign theme.
Hulshof and Steelman both praised Blunt on Tuesday for improving the state’s business climate and budget while keeping taxes low.
Asked why they would make a better candidate against Nixon, Hulshof argued that he had more policy disagreements with the attorney general than did Steelman, who countered that she could better stand up for the people as opposed to special interest groups.
More specifically, Hulshof cited differences with Nixon and Steelman over his support for lawsuit limits, opposition to collective bargaining for state employees and belief that a state fund for injured workers is headed toward insolvency.
Steelman cited her ability to “stand up to the establishment” by trying as a senator to end legislative pensions and trying as treasurer to prohibit state financial incentives from going to ethanol plants whose investors include elected officials.
As she has throughout the campaign, Steelman cast Hulshof as a Washington insider who has supported earmarking taxpayer money for questionable pork projects.
“I’m a little rough around the edges,” Steelman said as the debate began. “He’s a smooth talker, and I’m going to tell it to you straight.”
Hulshof countered that he had supported $1.6 trillion of tax cuts over the last dozen years, and he asserted that Steelman was twisting the facts.
“I’m an unapologetic fiscal deficit hawk,” he said. “It’s easy to mislead voters, and unfortunately that’s all Ms. Steelman has to offer.”
Asked how as governor they could help lower gas prices, Steelman renewed her call to repeal the state’s ethanol mandate, a move Hulshof contends would actually drive up the price of gasoline.
In their closing remarks, each used a bit of self-characterization to try to appeal to voters.
“I want to be a reformer,” Hulshof said.
Said Steelman: “In this election, I’m the conservative choice.”
The two Republicans also are to meet in a televised debate Wednesday night in Springfield.