2008 in Missouri politics: surprise, surprise, surprise

Thursday, December 25, 2008 | 6:37 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — In Missouri politics, 2008 was the year of the unexpected.

It began with a political shock wave. Republican Gov. Matt Blunt announced in January that he would not seek re-election, triggering a scramble to fill the void.

It drew to a close with a break from political history. When Republican John McCain defeated Democrat Barack Obama in Missouri, it marked just the second time in a century that Missourians failed to pick the presidential winner.

The wide-open gubernatorial race and seemingly perpetual presidential campaign dominated Missouri politics in 2008. The candidates spent big bucks broadcasting their messages through the media. And Missourians got big-time attention from the presidential slates, which made more than 40 appearances in a matter of nine months.

"It was kind of an exciting year, actually," said Richard Fulton, who has taught political science at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville for about 35 years. "We got to see a lot going on."

Missourians seem as politically divided as ever.

Voters replaced the departing Republican governor with Democrat Jay Nixon in a landslide. Democrats also carried a majority of Missouri's statewide offices.

Yet Republicans maintained control of Missouri's congressional delegation and the General Assembly, even increasing their majority in the state Senate. And, of course, Missourians voted for a Republican president in a year in which the Democrat won nationally.

In that regard, "it's a typical Missouri year, I guess, unpredictable," Fulton said.

The presidential election firmed up what some political scientists had suspected — that Missouri, while still a presidential battleground, is no longer an accurate gauge of the nation.

"The underlying political drift of Missouri now is confirmed. It's in a conservative direction," said political scientist Dave Robertson, of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Among the ways Missouri is becoming less representative of the nation: It has fewer Latinos, more evangelical Christians and a gross domestic product per capita that is slipping further behind the national average, Robertson said.

"Among the voters, there was a lot of dissatisfaction and just plain fear about what was happening in the economy nationwide and what they saw happening in the Missouri economy, with jobs, home prices and nest eggs losing value," Robertson said. "I think that was the foundation for many of the events we saw."

Blunt, who had raised millions of dollars for a re-election bid, stunned supporters and opponents alike with his decision not to seek a second term. Although frequently pressed for further explanation, Blunt said simply that he had accomplished nearly all of his goals, no longer had the "same sense of mission" and wanted to spend more time with his family.

After a behind-the-scenes contest to build support as Blunt's successor, two Republicans emerged and refused to back down. U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof ultimately prevailed over Treasurer Sarah Steelman in a contentious Republican gubernatorial primary.

But the August victory came at a cost for Hulshof. It drained his campaign funds. It divided the party. And Steelman's portrayal of Hulshof as a supporter of wasteful spending earmarks dogged him into the general election, where Nixon adopted the same criticism.

The Republican-backed repeal of Missouri's campaign contribution limits kicked in Aug. 28 — a little more than three weeks after the primary elections. That allowed Hulshof, Nixon and others to accept checks of unlimited amounts during the homestretch of the general election.

Nixon raised $17.3 million during his multiyear gubernatorial campaign — doubling Hulshof's $8.5 million and shattering the record set by Democrat Claire McCaskill four years earlier in her unsuccessful gubernatorial bid.

Nixon trounced Hulshof at the ballot box, winning 58.4 percent of the vote to Hulshof's 39.5 percent.

Then financial realities hit. Nixon had campaigned on expanding college scholarships and restoring the 2005 Medicaid health care cuts, carrying a combined cost of $326 million. A month after the election, Nixon's budget adviser warned the state was facing a $342 million shortfall during its current fiscal year.

As 2008 ended, Blunt remained in the headlines because of an investigation initiated by Nixon's attorney general office into whether the governor had followed Missouri's open-records and document retention laws in his office's e-mail practices. A trial was scheduled to begin Jan. 5, Blunt's final full week as governor.

Missouri's presidential campaign unfolded simultaneously with the gubernatorial drama.

The Feb. 5 presidential primaries produced no resounding Missouri favorites. McCain and Obama each eked out Missouri victories by about 1.5 percentage points. But because of different delegate distribution methods used by the parties, McCain received all of Missouri's Republican delegates while Obama split Missouri's Democratic delegates with Hillary Clinton.

As the general election neared, the presidential campaigns ramped up their Missouri efforts.

Obama's campaign opened 44 field offices, including some in rural areas where Democratic presidential candidates had not typically set up shop. He drew an estimated 100,000 people during a St. Louis campaign event — Obama's largest rally in the United States.

Both campaigns deployed armies of volunteers in a final get-out-the-vote push. After running TV ads for months in Missouri, Obama spent more than $1.2 million and McCain about $900,000 on ads during just the final week before the election.

The election was so close that Missouri was the final state decided. McCain won by a margin of 3,903 votes out of more than 2.9 million cast — a difference of just 0.13 percentage point.

It was Missouri's closest presidential election since 1908. And 2008 marked just the second election in the past century in which Missouri failed to cast its electoral votes for the presidential winner. The only other time was in 1956.


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