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Legislative candidates ride coattails of big names

Sunday, August 17, 2008 | 7:15 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY - Legislative candidates need to have a bit of a parasitic relationship with their party's candidates for major offices like governor and president.

The electorate and the media spend much of their time focused on juicy statewide and national races instead of local bouts that are often decided by issues that really don't matter outside the boundaries of the legislative district. Plus, it's not all that easy for the candidates to raise enough money to buy the public's attention by bombarding it with TV commercials.

So if you can't buy or earn the electorate's attention, what is a legislative candidate to do? Steal it.

With the spotlight following the major players seeking the most important offices, candidates for the Legislature try to use that buzz to win the support of voters who like a party's governor or presidential candidate but haven't even heard of the person who wants to represent them in the Legislature.

It's not a new concept, and both Republicans and Democrats are hoping that their guys in the governor and presidential races can land some seats in the state Legislature, especially the House.

Since the Missouri House was expanded to 163 members in the 1960s, the party of the freshly elected governor has picked up seats in about two-thirds of the elections.

But just once over the last four decades has the party of the freshly elected governor lost House seats. That was in 1976 when voters picked Democrat Joe Teasdale instead of re-electing Republican Kit Bond as governor. House Republicans that year managed to pick up a couple of seats but remained heavily outnumbered, 112 to 51.

Over the same period, the state Senate hasn't really been affected by who wins the Governor's Mansion.

And even in the House, where the coattails of Republican and Democratic governor candidates have helped their party land a handful of seats, the influence has never been enough to actually alter power in the chamber. Instead, Republicans and Democrats have traded clumps of districts that affect the majority party's margin but do not change who's in charge.

Control over the House has changed just once since the number of lawmakers was increased. When the Republicans broke through and came to power during the 2002 midterm election, the only statewide offices on the ballot were for state auditor and the U.S. Senate. Several proposed constitutional amendments, a ballot measure and a retention vote for a Missouri Supreme Court judge, also appeared on that ballot.

Two years later in 2004, voters picked Republican Matt Blunt to be governor while the GOP extended its majority in the House by six members. Missouri Republican Party executive director Jared Craighead said the Republican-led Legislature then helped implement the governor's priorities, paying back Blunt for the election-year assist.

"We wouldn't have been able to build this remarkable record of accomplishments that we have got if Governor Blunt wouldn't have had a friendly House and Senate to work with," Craighead said.

Democrats hope that governor candidate Jay Nixon can give them the same magic.

House Minority Leader Paul LeVota said Nixon could do some important things while working with a Republican-led Legislature but that it will take a House led by Democrats to really make a difference.

"If we're really going to move Missouri forward and change our state, we have to have a House of Representatives change of party," said LeVota, D-Independence.

Nixon will need to wear an awfully long coat to do that.

Republicans have history on their side in thinking that governor candidate Kenny Hulshof will help protect their 90-70 House majority.

In more than 40 years, the Democrats and Republicans each have claimed more than 10 seats during a gubernatorial election year just once.

The last time the Democrats did that well was in 1964 - when Lyndon Johnson easily defeated Barry Goldwater, Warren Hearnes was elected to his first term as governor and Democrats gained three-quarters of the House.

George Connor, acting chairman of the political science department at Missouri State University, said it's in the swing districts and for open seats that legislative candidates have the best chance to ride into office on the coattails of brethren seeking higher offices.

Using the coattails of candidates for higher office, Connor said, requires strong ideological links among those seeking spots in the Legislature and the top of the ticket. That could mean Hulshof and John McCain, who each struggled in more conservative southwest Missouri, aren't as big a help for Republican state Legislature candidates as Nixon and Barack Obama are for Democrats.

"With the coattail phenomena, the coattails start to get tattered on the lower part of the ballot because of the divergence of ideology," Connor said.

 


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