JEFFERSON CITY — Ending months of wavering, Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder said Friday that he will not run for governor and instead will support the newly launched campaign of Republican businessman Dave Spence.
Kinder, who a year ago had been the Republicans' presumed and uncontested challenger to Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, bowed out of the race relatively quietly by releasing a written statement that he would instead seek a third term as lieutenant governor. The announcement came after a string of political setbacks for Kinder, capped by his acknowledged that he had once been a regular patron at a strip club.
"I believe after numerous conversations with Dave Spence that he is the Republican Party's best chance of defeating Jay Nixon," Kinder said. "Dave is a self-made man and proven manager who understands how to create jobs and improve the state's economy. He is smart, serious and has a vision he's shared with me to renew Missouri's greatness. I am proud to call him a friend and will do everything in my power to see that he's elected governor next year."
Spence, whose candidacy declaration earlier this week caused Kinder to rethink the race, embraced the lieutenant governor's endorsement and reiterated that his campaign would focus on the economy.
"Like many Missourians, Peter understands that our state desperately needs a new governor with a fresh perspective who can solve big problems and knows how to create jobs," Spence said in statement distributed by an attorney who previously had been helping Kinder's campaign.
Spence, 53, of the St. Louis suburb of Ladue, is the president and CEO of Alpha Packaging, which makes plastic bottles for pharmaceuticals, vitamins and personal care products. He also is chairman of Legacy Packaging, a pharmaceutical packaging firm. As a first-time candidate, Spence will be starting with scant statewide name recognition, though he has pledged to spend some of his own fortune on the campaign.
Nixon, by comparison, has more than $4.2 million in his campaign account and a couple of decades of name recognition in Missouri politics.
"Jay Nixon's prospects for re-election have never been stronger," said Missouri Democratic Party spokeswoman Caitlin Legacki.
Kinder gained support among many Republicans for filing a lawsuit challenging President Barack Obama's health care law. But Kinder's campaign was rocked by politically damaging revelations before it ever officially began.
Earlier this year, Kinder repaid the state more than $54,000 for lodging expenses after the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported he had spent hundreds of nights at St. Louis hotels, some of which coincided with society galas, sporting events and other non-governmental functions. Then in August, after an article by the St. Louis weekly newspaper the Riverfront Times, Kinder acknowledged that he had repeatedly visited an Illinois strip club when he was a state senator in the 1990s. A few Republicans, including one major donor, called on Kinder not to run for governor.
The strip-club revelations led Kinder to delay his official candidacy announcement, which had been planned for shortly after Labor Day. Instead, Kinder said he would meet with grass-roots Republicans around the state to gauge his support for a gubernatorial campaign. He said in an Aug. 29 email to Republicans: "Before I make my final decision, I want the chance to earn your trust. ...Without your support I cannot succeed, and I will not run if I cannot win."
After re-evaluating the race, Kinder again had been making preparations to announce his gubernatorial candidacy this weekend. But those plans changed after Spence declared Tuesday that he was running for governor.
Some Republicans probably are "breathing a sigh of relief that Lt. Gov. Kinder is not on the top of their ticket," said George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University.
But Connor added: "I think it gives the race to Gov. Jay Nixon, because I do not see Mr. Spence — regardless of the money he spends — making a dent in Gov. Nixon's re-election campaign."
Spence is not the only Republican in the governor's race. Former Kansas City attorney Bill Randles has been campaigning since January and although he has barely $2,800 in his account, Randles emphasized Friday that he has put more than 40,000 miles on his car while attending more than 150 events and making connections with "opinion leaders" in the Republican Party and tea party movement. After Kinder's announcement, Randles quickly challenged Spence to a debate.
Kinder's decision could lead to a Republican primary for lieutenant governor. Earlier this week, state Sen. Brad Lager of Savannah and St. Louis businessman Chris McKee both announced their candidacies for lieutenant governor. McKee said Friday he will drop out and support Kinder. Lager said he remains a candidate but will re-evaluate that after he gets a chance to talk with Kinder.
This marks the third time in Missouri's past three gubernatorial elections that Kinder has backed away from a race. In 2004, Kinder considered running for governor but deferred to then-Secretary of State Matt Blunt, who won election. In 2008, after Blunt unexpectedly announced he would not seek a second term, Kinder immediately declared his candidacy for governor and stressed that he was in the race to stay. Yet two weeks later, Kinder dropped out of the gubernatorial primary and instead said he would seek re-election, citing a desire to preserve party unity and advance the general Republican cause.
"Peter Kinder is an outstanding public servant who has always put the hopes and dreams of Missourians ahead of his own political aspirations," Republican Party Chairman David Cole said Friday.