Hulshof's loss attributed to name recognition, competition in primary

Thursday, November 6, 2008 | 10:36 p.m. CST; updated 2:14 p.m. CST, Thursday, January 22, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — While Republicans in Missouri won or came close in many races Tuesday, the party suffered a defeat of double-digit proportions in one major statewide contest — the gubernatorial race.

Results were near dead-even for the presidential race in Missouri, and Republicans won the lieutenant governor's office, but Republican Kenny Hulshof lost the gubernatorial race to Democrat Jay Nixon by 18.9 percentage points.

It was a defeat of historic proportions — the worse defeat for a major-party gubernatorial candidate since John Ashcroft's re-election in 1988. Hulshof fared worse than Republican Bill Webster, who was defeated in 1992 after reports indicated he was facing a federal criminal investigation for corruption in office.

Pre-election polls consistently projected a double-digit victory for Nixon.

Various spokespeople and legislators attributed Hulshof's overwhelming loss to lack of name recognition among Missourians.

"Not enough people knew this great man, Kenny Hulshof," said John Hancock, Hulshof's campaign manager on Election Day. "Our problem was he was a Congressman for one-ninth of the state. The other eight-ninths of the state didn't know who he was. Jay Nixon's been in office since just after the Civil War."

Hulshof is completing his sixth term representing the 9th Congressional District, whereas Nixon held the state attorney general's office for 12 years and has had more face time with Missourians.

The only Republican elected to statewide office on Tuesday agreed with Hancock's observation.

"It owes a lot to the fact that Kenny Hulshof was a first-time statewide candidate, against a guy in his seventh," incumbent Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder said.

Key among Hulshof's losses was Boone County — his home county, which he lost to Nixon by 12.6 percentage points. Boone County voted Democrat in every race except state Senator-elect Kurt Schaefer, who was elected to represent the 19th District.

Schaefer, a Republican, said he did not know why fellow Republican Hulshof lost his own home county.

"There were a lot of anomalies in this election statewide, so I think a lot of people are going to spend a lot of time analyzing why some things came out as the way they did," Schaefer said. "I think that on some of the higher-ticket races, it may tend to be more about party. When you get down to the down-ticket races, it may tend to be more about the individual than about the party. But I certainly don't know if that's the case."

Twenty-fourth District Representative-elect Chris Kelly, a Democrat, defeated incumbent Republican Ed Robb by just more than 1 percentage point. He attributed Hulshof's losing his home county to several factors, including a possible assumption that Hulshof would win Boone County.

"I don't know this for fact, but I'm thinking maybe that Kenny had to take Boone County for granted and go to other places," Kelly said. "Every single candidate, from a little teeny office like me all the way up to Hulshof and Nixon, makes choices, and those choices cost you on one end or another. Kenny could not have afforded to spend a lot of time here and still win the election."

"I think the defeat has as much to do with the mechanics of the campaign as it did with the big Obama win," Kelly said. "The Obama people in Boone County were superbly organized. The Obama people were more together, and the Nixon people were more together."

Another possible reason for Hulshof's loss was how quickly he could organize and orchestrate his campaign, Kelly said. Because outgoing Gov. Matt Blunt announced his intent not to run for re-election in January, Hulshof and his Republican primary opponent, state treasurer Sarah Steelman, had relatively little time to organize their campaigns.

"He had a much higher mountain to climb than Jay, because Jay had years to put his together," Kelly said. "When Blunt went out, and Steelman and Hulshof came in, I knew it was going to be difficult for either one of them, because they'd have to find an outfielder, a third-baseman, a catcher — all these positions that Jay already had filled."

In addition to losing Boone County, Hulshof lost several other key areas of the state. His campaign hoped to win Buchanan County, St. Louis County and St. Charles County but failed to secure any of them. Other major losses include historically Republican, rural counties.

Rep. Mike Cunningham represents the 145th District, which encompasses Webster County and part of Greene County in southern Missouri. He suggested his historically Republican district went to Nixon because of Hulshof's competition with Steelman in the primary.

"Having an opponent with him in the primary that took issue with him on several different things — I think that hurt him considerably," Cunningham said. "In our area, they're proposing an ethanol plant, and Sarah came out very strongly against Kenny for supporting alternative fuel. There's a number of things they disagreed on, but that was the main thing that carried a lot of weight in Webster County."

Republican Rep. Barney Fisher of the 125th District said he was surprised Hulshof did not carry the counties in his district, which is also rural and historically Republican.

"I thought Congressman Hulshof would win both Bates and Vernon Counties," Fisher said. "I think I thought it so deeply, I didn't even check the polls. This is not a good year for Republican candidates."

However, an official with the Missouri Republican Party dismissed any relationship between Hulshof's defeat and rural counties' going toward Nixon. When asked why rural Missourians voted for Nixon, party spokeswoman Tina Hervey said Missouri voters are educated and do not make decisions based on party politics.

"It's insulting to Missouri voters and our reputation of being a bellwether state to assume rural voters will vote a certain way," Hervey said.

Repeated phone calls to Hulshof's campaign for further comment were not returned.

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