JEFFERSON CITY — As a gubernatorial candidate, Sarah Steelman seldom skipped a chance to speak out against Republican rival Kenny Hulshof. After losing the primary, Steelman’s silence speaks even louder.
In a break from modern political tradition, Steelman so far has not endorsed Hulshof in his November general election against Democrat Jay Nixon. In fact, since election night, Steelman has said nothing at all about Hulshof.
Enhancing the silence is that Steelman was expected — at least by Hulshof — to have made some positive public statement about his candidacy by now.
On the night of the Aug. 5 primary, Steelman called Hulshof to congratulate him and told The Associated Press: “I wished him the best of luck, and the two of us agreed to sit down and talk sometime soon.”
True to her word, Steelman met with Hulshof at a Jefferson City coffee shop on Aug. 18. The meeting occurred on a Monday morning. In early afternoon, Hulshof spokesman Scott Baker told the AP: “A statement is pending!”
But no statement came from Steelman nor Hulshof that afternoon, nor evening, nor the next morning. Asked around noon Tuesday whether some sort of supportive statement still was coming, Baker replied: “I intend to have something for you this afternoon.”
But nothing came. Hulshof called Steelman on the telephone Tuesday night for some further discussion. As with the in-person meeting a day earlier, Baker described the conversation as “cordial” and “very positive.”
Yet Steelman still issued no statement supporting Hulshof.
On Wednesday, Baker said a supportive statement “is still a possibility” but acknowledged “there are no expectations” any longer about whether or when that might occur.
Steelman told the AP she was “thinking about things” but declined to comment further about whether she would publicly back Hulshof.
There are plenty of reasons she might be reluctant to do so.
Steelman, the state treasurer, repeatedly criticized Hulshof — a 12-year congressman — as a wasteful, big-spending Washington politician during their Republican primary. She called for the repeal of Missouri’s ethanol mandate, which Hulshof supports. And she belittled — and struggled against — the spate of endorsements Hulshof received from most of Missouri’s top Republican elected officials and influential business groups.
For Steelman to suggest her supporters should now follow Hulshof — if the statement is not carefully crafted — could come off as insincere or imply that party politics are more important than what she had presented as a principled stand during the campaign.
But politicians routinely pull an about-face.
A little over a week after losing to John McCain in Missouri and various other Super Tuesday primary states, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney stood beside McCain and publicly endorsed him.
When Barack Obama finally secured enough delegates for Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton privately met with Obama and — just four days after her loss — publicly declared: “I endorse him and throw my full support behind him.”
At the time, both Clinton and Romney still had the potential of being picked by their rivals as vice presidential running mates.
Steelman has no similar hope, because lieutenant governor’s candidates run simultaneously and separately from gubernatorial candidates in Missouri. Her loss also makes her a lame-duck in the treasurer’s office, where she has just a few more months in her term.
One reason the primary loser typically endorses the winner is “because the losing candidate does not want to undermine their position in the party,” said Richard Fulton, a political scientist at Northwest Missouri State University. “Most of them feel a loyalty to the party, and they don’t want to look like a poor loser.”
But Steelman never had the support of Missouri’s GOP establishment; she ran a “Power to the People” campaign. And she loaned her campaign $770,000 to keep pace with Hulshof’s fundraising.
“I think she really feels betrayed by the party, so she didn’t feel that kind of obligation” to the party to make a unity statement, Fulton said.
The extent to which such endorsements matter is debatable. A majority of Republican primary voters likely will vote for the Republican candidate in the general election regardless. But some independent voters could switch sides, or some could stay home in November. Without strong encouragement from Steelman to support Hulshof, some of her grass-roots volunteers may be less inclined to put in the same effort for Hulshof.
Steelman has said nothing negative about Hulshof since the primary. But her silence still carries negative implications. Democrats, for example, have been playing it up.
“By not coming out and endorsing Kenny Hulshof, she’s sending a message to her supporters that it’s OK to vote against the Washington establishment,” said Nixon spokesman Oren Shur, adopting Steelman’s primary characterization of Hulshof.
Steelman never pledged an endorsement, only a meeting. But without the subsequent endorsement, it might have been better for Hulshof if that meeting never occurred, Fulton said.
“It’s sort of leaving the bridegroom at the altar — a runaway bride — it leaves a strange kind of aura,” Fulton said. “When she meets with you and then comes away and says nothing, that leaves a very strong subliminal message — I don’t like this guy.”